Stephanie Stewart's tiny windowless office is nearly consumed by a large wooden desk. Her computer sits on a small, cheap stand on her left, while a tall bookshelf littered with more than a dozen black binders and file folders occupies a corner on her right. A handful of photographs of the 31-year-old attorney with her husband and 1-year-old son help to liven the otherwise bleak white walls.

It's 10 a.m. on a recent weekday, and Stewart already has spent a couple of hours poring over cases. She'll probably work through lunch. She's often at the office before 8:30 a.m., when the building is still closed, and she's usually late to dinner. She spends those hours as a guardian ad litem permanency attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. Her job is to be a legal representative for abused, neglected or abandoned kids who have been pulled from their homes.

As a staff attorney, Stewart often gets the worst cases. Recently, she terminated the parental rights of a couple after their elementary-school—age child was beaten to death. Criminal charges are pending against them.

One of her tasks today is to set up an appointment with a mother whose 10-year-old son was taken away because the woman's live-in boyfriend was molesting him. The state had to get involved when the mother tried to come to the defense of the boyfriend, at the expense of the kid. (The boyfriend later got probation and was forced to register as a sex offender.)

But a large chunk of her day will be spent reviewing a decade-old case involving a child, now 10, who tested positive for cocaine at birth. Six weeks later, at a checkup, a doctor noticed that the mother was so high that she could barely sign her name. The Florida Department of Children and Families showed up at the mother's home with a nurse in tow. The woman failed a drug test, spit at the nurse and was arrested.

Now, a decade later, the woman wants her child back, and it's up to Stewart to recommend to a judge whether or not that's in the girl's best interest.

"There's still eight more years `of care from the state` for this child," she says. "It's heart-wrenching, because you watch the kids go through these horrific things and you don't know what the outcome will be long-term."

Orange County's 1,102 current guardian ad litem cases are handled by the Legal Aid Society's five staff attorneys and a pool of about 300 pro bono attorneys "that are either brand-new attorneys or this isn't their daily practice," Stewart says.

Every county in the state has some means of providing legal representation to minors, but Orange County is the only one in Florida that does so exclusively with attorneys.

In other counties, children are represented by trained volunteers who don't necessarily have to be lawyers. That model was adopted everywhere else in the state after a pilot program determined in 2003 that it was the most effective means of representing kids. Volunteers — often retired social workers or law students — are there because they want to be there. They have the time to devote to the cases. Many become not only a protector for their kids, but also a trusted friend.

The volunteer model means counties that could barely provide representation to 25 percent of the kids who needed it are now close to 100 percent representation.

But Orange County has resisted switching to the state's model, opting instead to keep using attorneys, some of whom are required to donate their time as a condition of admission to the county bar.

While counties on the volunteer system have reported soaring success rates, some doubling the number of kids that get legal representation, Orange County struggles with low rates, long wait times for assigning an ad litem and lack of attorney availability.

. . .

It has been a state law since 1980 that all children eligible for legal representation in dependency matters — typically cases of abuse or neglect, a bitter divorce or adoption — must be represented in court by a guardian ad litem.

Prior to 1980, most Florida counties had some sort of loose guardian ad litem system, often operated by judges. But since the 1980 bill was adopted as an unfunded mandate, little changed because Florida counties didn't have the resources to grow their ad litem programs.

The state-funded Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program wasn't established until 2000 (though the state office didn't open until 2004), when Osceola County was chosen for the pilot program. Programs are organized into teams, bottom-heavy with lay volunteers who have attended a 30-hour training session. Case managers and staff members oversee the volunteers and each county typically has two or three program attorneys.

In Orange County, the guardian ad litem program dates to the 1960s, when the Orange County Bar Association began operating a pro bono system. The Legal Aid Society, a non-profit that acts as the bar association's arm for providing representation for children and the indigent, was created in 1967 and began guardian services in the mid-1970s.

At first freebie cases were handled informally, perhaps by a lawyer's spouse, says Legal Aid Society pro bono coordinator Catherine Tucker. Bar members were then required to take one pro bono case a year and pay a $100 membership fee. Nowadays, county bar members are required to do two pro bono cases per year, though they have the option of opting out of the commitment by donating $350 to the Legal Aid Society.

"Initially it was just an idea; there was no formal program," Tucker says. "It was sort of a natural flow because we already had a required pro bono program. We probably existed for a while with the state program ignoring Orange County because they didn't have to spend money here; I'm sure they were happy with that."

In the 1980s, as the county's population exploded, the Legal Aid Society struggled to keep up with demand.

"We represented 250 to 300 kids at the time," says Susan Khoury, the Legal Aid Society's guardian ad litem program coordinator. "It would have been reckless to drop attorneys and hope we could get laypeople to represent the kids."

The same thinking still pervades the Orange County system, even though the state has moved on.

"It's kind of like ‘If it's not broke, don't fix it,'" says Cara Dobrev, the guardian ad litem litigation director for the Legal Aid Society. "To start over with a different model doesn't really make sense to us."

. . .

Before 1999, Orange County handily outperformed the rest of the state in terms of representation rates. However, after a string of child deaths in Orange County that year, requests for GALs doubled and the Legal Aid Society didn't have enough volunteers to meet the need. Most of the county's existing ad litems were overburdened with at least five to 10 cases, if not more, and declined new ones, according to a report on the pilot program released in late 2002.

"Orange County had a much better program at that time," says Ninth Circuit Juvenile Judge Daniel Dawson. "At the time they had 100 percent representation. Others had as much as 40 percent and usually 20 percent."

But now the situation is flipped. Orange County isn't achieving 100 percent representation while other counties enjoy the benefits of a statewide system that brings with it money, standardization and oversight. Counties that participate in the state funded program get communications and IT support, equipment and building space. The state provides substantial staff and volunteer training, recruitment assistance and materials. Many programs also receive grants from organizations such as the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association.

"There are huge advantages to operating under the same umbrella. It's standardized; it's the same thing for every case," Dawson says. "Staff in other counties have degrees in social work. That's what they do 40 hours a week; they have more time to investigate and look into things."

Orange County's system raises questions of motive, notes Jerry Pitzer, the foster and adoptive parent liaison for Family Services of Metro Orlando. "Some do it because they want to and some do it because it's good for their resume, but in Seminole County they all do it because they want to."

Osceola and Seminole counties both have programs housed at the courthouse, which allows them to send representatives immediately if a judge requests an ad litem. Not so in Orange County.

"Orange County is very slow, almost unreasonable," says Pitzer. "A child may be able to get a guardian ad litem before 90 days, but sometimes it's six months. They should have one right out of the gate."

And there are other possible advantages to doing it the state's way, says Helen Callahan, a retired social worker who regularly worked with guardians from both Orange and Osceola counties during her five-year tenure with DCF.

"The case management model works better," she says. "With statewide funding comes more oversight and standardizing how things are done."

She recalls one, and only one, hard-working lawyer serving as an ad litem in Orange County. He returned calls and always knew what was going on in the lives of the children he represented, she says. "There were very few attorneys who were into it like that. There's really giving back and then there's putting it on paper and saying, ‘Look what I did.'"

Orange County's advantage disappeared when programs across the state started splitting a pot of $35 million appropriated by the Florida Legislature. Since 2004, Orange County has received a subsidy of $715,800 from the state, but the county's program would have been fully funded if the society had been willing to switch to the state model.

. . .

After the state's pilot program ended in late 2003, it was clear which model was more effective. Osceola had handily surpassed the representation rate in Orange, which hovered around 80 percent. Osceola County boasted 100 percent representation rates during the three-year, fully funded pilot program. That rate has since declined slightly because of a change in the funding level once the pilot ended.

According to the pilot program report, Osceola's program provides increased contact with children, the ability to better monitor cases in other court divisions such as criminal cases, frequent status reports and a substantial increase in the number of adoptions.

Statistics compiled by the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program this month show that while Osceola represents 94 percent of children in need of a guardian, Orange struggles to maintain 80 percent, despite having some 370, mostly pro bono attorneys and a handful of lay volunteers. Osceola County has 60 volunteers, 20 staff members (mostly case coordinators who work directly with volunteer ad litems) and three staff attorneys. The county is currently representing children in about 730 cases.

Seminole has a much smaller load — only 353 cases — yet it has recruited about 130 volunteers, though some do not currently have an active case. Nadine Miller, executive director of the Seminole County program, estimates that the county represents 90 percent of kids in need of a guardian.

The county has two program attorneys funded through the state, an improvement over the days when the county sent volunteer ad litems into court without the legal help due to lack of money.

"We find that a lay volunteer has more time than a practicing attorney to visit children," Miller says. "A volunteer that is involved in one to two cases has more time and ability to devote."

Broward County, which currently has a roster of nearly 2,500 cases, has a 99 percent representation rate. Several small counties such as Madison, Dixie and Monroe achieve 100 percent representation.

Dennis Moore, deputy executive director and general counsel for the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program, says the state cares less about the route counties take as long as they are working to achieve 100 percent representation. Orange County, he says, has worked passionately with the state in recent years.

"We've worked with them to augment their program. I don't know that we're at the point where we can say through outcomes it isn't working," Moore says. "Over time they'll probably get there."

. . .

As for Stephanie Stewart, the day is still young. The fate of her 10-year-old client weighs heavily on her today.

Since the father was unknown, the girl bounced to foster care and then back to the grandmother just in time for the mother to ask for her child back in 2001. She was denied because she was still using drugs and hadn't followed her case plan to demonstrate that she was a fit parent.

Now Stewart is weighing the same request from the mother again. The woman is off drugs, though her mental health is an issue. Stewart could recommend that the mother's parental rights be terminated, but she has to weigh that against the fact that the woman is trying to get better.

"(The mother) has made a tremendous effort to be at court appearances," Stewart says. "I think in her mind she really wants her daughter back, but I don't think she understands she has homework, activities, little friends and that she will ask questions about things," Stewart says. "The last time mom had her, she was an infant."

In the meantime Stewart has requested that the mother seek a mental health evaluation so she can determine "if the mother can parent." Her inclination is that she can't.

"You just want to wipe away their adult worries but because of what happened, usually you can't; it will stay with them forever," she says.

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