(Southwest Florida) The 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida has launched a pilot program designed to provide guardians ad litem for children involved in high-conflict divorce and custody cases in the Circuit’s Family Law Division. All the volunteers for this ground-breaking program are attorneys from the Sarasota and Manatee County offices of the law firm of Icard, Merrill, Cullis, Timm, Furen & Ginsburg, P.A.
The program is directed by the Honorable Lee E. Haworth and Charles E. Williams, who are co-chairs of the Circuit’s pro bono program. After recognizing a need for independent parties to represent the best interests of children in contentious cases, the judges approached Robert Lyons, president of Icard Merrill, to ask if the firm would consider volunteering to advocate for these children, all of whom are from families at or below the poverty line. Icard Merrill has a substantial history of providing pro bono services to the local community, and it was this dedication that prompted Icard Merrill to respond positively to the challenge. Twenty-four Icard Merrill attorneys have signed up to volunteer, from new associates to the most senior shareholders, drawing from all of the firm’s practice groups and specialties.
“Children caught in the middle of an acrimonious divorce need an independent voice to speak for them in court, to make unbiased recommendations and to ensure the judges have the best information possible,” said Judge Haworth. “Because there is no state-funded program to allow guardians ad litem in family court, we have created this pro bono program to address a very real need in our circuit. I commend Icard Merrill for being willing to take this on as I know it will be a significant investment of time and resources. The end product, however, will be a better result for children, and there can be no higher calling than the protection of vulnerable kids.”
The attorneys, joined by judges, judicial staff and various family court personnel, have already completed their training for the program, and case assignments are expected to begin in May in the Sarasota and Venice family divisions. If the program is as successful as expected, it may be opened in the future to other attorneys, regardless of specialty, who wish to volunteer to help children in this unique way.
For more details about this program, please refer to the attached Q&A. Requests for media interviews of judicial representatives or Icard Merrill representatives should be directed to the above contact.
Submitted by Advice, Inc.
Linda Gross: (941) 720-0462
Guardian ad Litem pilot program – 12th Judicial Circuit Court
Questions & Answers
Q: What prompted this program?
A: It is crucial that children involved in legal proceedings have an advocate who will look out for their interests. While a Guardian ad Litem program (GAL) exists in dependency court for children who have been neglected or abused by their parents, no such program is available for children in the Family Division who are impacted by contentious custody cases. Children who are caught in the crossfire of a bitter divorce may suffer long-term trauma. Judges have recognized the importance of having better information about these children and their needs through an independent voice who will speak for them in court.
Q: Who will the program serve? How will it work?
A: The pilot program will focus exclusively on high-conflict divorce and child custody cases involving families who are at or below the poverty line. The pilot program will begin in Sarasota County, with the three Family Division judges in Sarasota and Venice will appoint private GALs for a limited number of cases. These are the Honorable Debra Johnes Riva, the Honorable Rochelle Curley, and the Honorable Robert W. McDonald, Jr.
The pilot program will be directed by the Honorable Charles E. Williams and the Honorable Lee E. Haworth, both acting in their capacity as co-chairs of the 12th Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee. The judges invited the attorneys of Icard Merrill to volunteer as the guardians ad litem.
Stacy Dillard-Spahn will serve as Icard Merrill’s point of contact and will assist in identifying volunteer attorneys based on availability, scheduling and any special circumstances. Two of Icard Merrill’s most highly experienced family law attorneys – Jaime Wallace and Art Ginsburg – will serve as mentors and advisors to their fellow attorneys as needed.
Q: Why was Icard Merrill selected for this program?
A: Judges Williams and Haworth recognized Icard Merrill’s strong tradition of pro bono service and asked the firm to help establish the program. This represents a major commitment of the firm’s time and resources and is tangible proof of Icard Merrill’s ongoing dedication to public service.
Q: What are the responsibilities of the attorneys involved?
A: Volunteer GAL attorneys will have broad powers to investigate and report as authorized in §61.403, Florida Statutes. Attorneys will make recommendations as to the best interests of the children involved and provide information to aid the judges in making decisions on custody issues and determining whether the educational, social and medical needs of the children are being met.
Q: Does this program exist elsewhere?
A: Yes, a similar successful program has been in effect in Pinellas County since 2011.
Q: When will the program begin, and what preparations have been made?
A: Appointments will begin in May in Sarasota. A training session was conducted in April for Icard Merrill lawyers, judges and their judicial assistants. The training was at Icard Merrill’s Sarasota office and was conducted by 6th Circuit Judge Jack Helinger and family law attorney Belinda Lazzara, both of St. Petersburg, as well as Judge Haworth, Jaime Wallace, Sarasota psychologist Brad Broeder, and staff from the local family court programs.
Q: Who are the attorneys involved in this program?
A: The following Icard Merrill attorneys have agreed to serve as GAL advocates. It should be noted that few of the volunteers are family lawyers, nor do they have to be to provide service. Most of the attorneys practice in unrelated fields, but share a common concern to help vulnerable children.
IM Attorney Participants:
G. Matthew Brockway
Kelly P. Causey
Bruce P. Chapnick
Michael W. Cochran
Robert A. Drean
Michael J. Furen
Natalie A. Greenberg
Joseph M. Herbert
F. Thomas Hopkins
Thomas F. Icard, Jr.
Robert K. Lincoln
Robert G. Lyons
Lindsey A. Meshberger
William W. Merrill, III
Troy H. Myers, Jr.
Alyssa M. Nohren
Jordan J. Riccardi
Julie A. Simonson
John J. Waskom
Robert L. Young
IM Family Law Attorney advisors/mentors:
Jaime L. Wallace
Arthur D. Ginsburg
# # #