Back in 1997 a very good friend introduced me to what being a Guardian ad Litem is all about. I have to thank Deb Mancini profusely for motivating me to sign up and become a GAL volunteer. As I recall, back at that time there was one GAL attorney and four office staff to assist in recruiting and training volunteers to come to the aid of children involved with dependency proceedings (child abuse).
In 1999 I received my second case. This involved a special young child that began his involvement with “the system” around 1994
and allegations of inadequate supervision. As I write this message for the newsletter I am reflecting both on how the GAL program has evolved throughout the years I have been affiliated with it, as well as, the experience that I have shared with this – now – young man.
Let me tell you a little bit about “Allen’s” story (I will not use his real name). The reports of abuse that involved his family go back to 1994. The Department of Children & Families (then HRS) began their involvement with various in home interventions. In 1
998 Allen and his sister were removed from the home and placed into care with the State of Florida. It wasn’t long before I found myself in the middle of a termination of parental rights action, with me recommending that the parents’ rights be severed. Allen knows I was very much a part of that, but he doesn’t blame me for taking that position. He knows I was simply trying to protect him and his sister.
There are times when I wonder if I am worthy of this mission. Many times I grieve very heavily over the decisions that we as GALs must make. For Allen, the removal from the abusive home environment meant that, over time, he would spend 500 days in temporary shelter care;experience over 30 different foster care placements; spend 50 lonely days in DJJ detention; and 400 days in DJJ residential commitment and treatment programs. Did I mention the ten different elementary schools he confusingly waded through in this disruptive childhood development? I guess that explains his FCAT scores.
I don’t want to paint a picture where Allen is a perfect angel and the system failed him. What I would like to present is a child who is hurting, and who loved his parents in spite of what he experienced at their hands and in their care. The way our child welfare system works is that the children are removed from parents who have been found to be a threat of harm, or who have actually injured their child through maltreatment, neglect, or sexual abuse. The ideal would be to remove the parents, perhaps, and have “Nanny 911” rushed to the home. That way, the children would experience the lesser disruption to their life. As it is, the children who are removed get confused and often wonder if it was because of something they did.
In the last ten years I have seen a greater focus on child welfare and I have seen the GAL Program grow, and decline, due to budget restraints. Currently, I am one of over four hundred and fifty volunteers that assist the program in protecting children who have experienced alleged abuse or neglect. There are earlier interventions utilized now, and other intensive in-home approaches to rehabilitating parents who may have lacked the proper training in child care, or who needed services and assistance in overcoming their addictions or other complications thatlife seems to spread out so abundantly. I am glad to be a part of the program that serves in this capacity, and thereby, might serve to give both parents and children another chance to “get on course”, and to succeed.
child welfare guidelines focus with intent on “twelve months to permanency”; this is part of a federal mandate to achieve a solution to the family’s problem within “child time” and remediate, rehabilitate, or provide another permanency solution for the children, including terminating the parents’ legal rights if that is found to be necessary. All within one year. That is the theory and the hope.
Officially, my role as GAL meant that I looked out for the child’s “best interests”, but not long after accepting this case Allen was more than just a “case” to me. He has been in my life just a few years less than my own sons. I have watched Allen play little league baseball when he was small and saw the joy in his face when he proudly baked cookies just last year. I have spent birthdays, Christmas, Halloween, and other countless events with this boy over the years, trying to give him something constant and stable in his life (I even suffered the cafeteria food in order to share lunchtime with him at school).
I never judged Allen, I always tried to be there for him, guide him when he would listen, and speak for him when it was time to go to court. And there were plenty of court hearings, let me tell you. I have seen Allen in church clothes, street clothes, baseball uniforms, school uniforms, and even the bright orange of the Department of Juvenile Justice – I always tried to treat him the same.
Last year Allen turned eighteen, and as soon as he could, he got on a plane and headed to the person he worried about the most over the years – his biological mother – who he had recently heard was now dying from cancer. I had thought and struggled over the years with adopting this young boy myself. How many of the negative experiences could have been avoided, how much could his suffering have been less, if only things had been different?
The impact of the Guardian ad Litem Program has been far reaching and relentless in presenting the best interest issues for the permanency of children to the court. The stories of my fellow volunteers are full of the extra mile they have gone on behalf of fighting for the cause of the children they represent, whether it be regarding their education, disability, mental health, independent living for those older children, or establishing the proper permanency outcome for all of the children.
The role of the Guardian ad Litem is to be the voice of children involved in dependency proceedings. At a time ofalleged abuse, neglect, or maltreatment, this cannot be a time for these wounded children to be seen and not heard. The history of this program has been acknowledged by the legislature in the statutes, where it is stated:
The Legislature finds that for the past 20 years, the Guardian ad Litem Program has been the only mechanism for the best interest representation for children in Florida who are involved independency proceedings. (39.8296)
That was included in the statutes in 2006, but I believe it states my purpose for volunteering, each and every day that I am able to. I encourage my fellow volunteers to persevere and continue the good fight. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to serve children in need.