Naples lawyer devotes legal expertise and time to SWFL children in foster care
Back-to-School with the Blue volunteers pose for a photo before distributing backpacks and school supplies to Southwest Florida students.
Melissa Grege Schiffman retired in 2014 as an attorney in New Jersey, wrapping up a successful legal career... or so she thought.
Like many retirees, Melissa started as a seasonal resident, spending her winters in warmth while volunteering for charitable causes in Southwest Florida.
The Naples that seasonal residents see, however, isn’t the Naples that many children experience.
Every day, hundreds of children in Collier County are living in foster homes or temporary custody after being abused, neglected or abandoned. Thankfully, the local Guardian ad Litem office helps these children through its team of Guardian ad Litem volunteers, and a nonprofit – the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, 20th Judicial Circuit – helps provide training and resources for these volunteers who represent children as they navigate the judicial, child welfare, and education systems. These individuals communicate with the child and his or her foster family or caregivers, as well as childcare professionals, attorneys, school counselors, and others.
Melissa witnessed the impact that volunteer child advocates were having on local children. In addition to representing them in court, volunteers meet monthly with children, often casually over lunch, mini-golf, or ice cream. They become trusted mentors and friends for children whose interactions with adults have not always been positive. They can request funding through the Foundation to cover expenses like birthday parties, tutoring, summer camp programs, movie tickets, and registration fees for clubs and sports.
“Some children have experienced unthinkable events in their lives – undergoing physical and mental abuse, seeing their parents do drugs and watching mom or dad get arrested and hauled off to jail,” said Bruce Greenberg, president of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation’s Board of Directors. “These children just need some attention and responsible adults in their lives who care.”
Melissa completed a training program to become a court-certified volunteer child advocate, accepting challenging cases involving complex legal and family situations. One common thread Melissa noted was that every child she represented just wanted to be loved and feel safe.
“Every case is heartbreaking,” Melissa recalled.
With a legal background and time on her hands, Melissa recognized the importance of being licensed to practice law in Florida. In 2018, more than two decades after completing law school, she sat for the Florida Bar. Today, Melissa provides pro bono legal services to the Guardian ad Litem office while also taking cases as an attorney ad litem through Collier Lawyers Care. Additionally, Melissa joined the Guardian ad Litem Foundation’s Board of Directors in 2021.
For her accomplishments and dedication to children in Southwest Florida, Melissa was recognized January 26 by the Florida Supreme Court and The Florida Bar with the 2023 Pro Bono Service Award, which honors individuals who have freely given their time and expertise in ensuring access to justice for those who otherwise could not afford it. In a letter to Melissa, Gary Lesser, president of The Florida Bar, commends the Naples volunteer for her dedication to Southwest Florida youth.
“The time and professional expertise you have contributed to making legal representation available to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it show our profession at its best,” he said.
For Melissa, the decision to devote her expertise and time to children was easy.
“Every child has a right to be loved, feel secure, and experience stability, but so many children have lost out on that – they have lost their childhood,” she said. “I want to help give them a sense of self-worth and self-confidence that is often lacking. I am proud to serve this community and help provide support and resources that all children need and deserve.”
About the Author
Jessica Stanfield is Executive Director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, 20th Judicial Circuit. For more information, please visit VoicesForKids.org or call 239.533.1435.