Long-time head of Florida foster care agency resigns to take new job

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Christopher O'Donnell, Tampa Bay Times
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TAMPA — The head of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program has resigned to take a new position as the chief executive officer of a nonprofit that works with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Alan Abramowitz led the state funded program for about 10 years. It receives roughly $53 million each year to provide advocacy for roughly 35,000 children in Florida’s foster care system.

His departure comes as the program came under fire earlier this year from state lawmakers and others following a study that found that the agency was serving fewer children even though state lawmakers had increased its annual funding by $10 million. The report also cast doubt on whether Florida’s model of volunteer advocates backed up by program attorneys provided the best representation for children.

Abramowitz said he was approached by the Arc of Florida to serve as its top executive and that his departure was unrelated to criticism of the program. He sent a resignation letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis Friday. It is effective June 1.

He said working to improve the lives of people with disabilities, especially children, was an opportunity he could not pass up. Many of the foster care initiatives he supported and lobbied for were to ensure that children with disabilities were not taken into foster care solely because their parents could not provide the specialized care they needed.

“This was really my plan all along,” he said of his new job. “I’m going to work for a great organization that fights for people with disabilities.”

Abramowitz, 59, was paid $128,000 to run the statewide foster care program that relies on a network of roughly 13,000 trained volunteers who get to know foster children and attend court hearings to speak on their behalf.

Prior to that he held executive positions at the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Florida Bar, and worked as assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. He is a former JAG officer in the Army Reserves and the National Guard, and was a Peace Corps volunteer.

Under Florida law, a five-member committee will be convened to produce a shortlist of three candidates for the position left vacant by Abramowitz. The committee members are selected by Florida’s governor, the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court and the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Association.

DeSantis will then pick which of the three will head the program for a three-year term.

The new executive director will inherit a challenging landscape.

The state review of the program was requested by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, during the 2020 legislative session. The review conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability was cause for alarm, Book said in January.

Among the findings:

  • In the 2020 fiscal year, one-third of kids — roughly 18,000 children — had no guardian ad litem advocating for their interests, a violation of state law.

  • The program was not able to accurately report how well it was performing since it relied on statewide data that included children with no guardian ad litem.

  • The turnover rate for the agency’s employees was 50 percent

The report prompted Book to propose new legislation during the 2021 legislative session to ensure foster children with complex cases get direct legal representation from an attorney. The bill, which the Guardian ad Litem agency lobbied against, did not get a hearing in the Senate.

Roy Miller, president of the Tallahassee nonprofit The Children’s Campaign, said Abramowitz had successfully lobbied for laws that improved the lives of Florida’s foster children.

Miller said the state report criticizing the agency was flawed as the additional funding was intended to reduce case loads and ensure more children were adopted or reunited.

“Under Alan’s leadership, they’ve done an amazing job of triaging which kids need critical care,” Miller said.

Times Staff Writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.