Author: Katrina Ganzler
Published June 23, 2014
When you think back to your childhood what comes to mind? Perhaps it was the carefree days of climbing a tree or the innocence of playing hide and seek outside with your neighbors. There is nothing quite like the nostalgic memories of your childhood. It’s a formative time where you learn from observation and can use your imagination to perceive situations and make them your own. The harsh reality is that too many kids think back to hostile recollections such as their parents passing out from drug or alcohol abuse and forgetting to feed them dinner, or deep purple marks in the shape of a handprint across their face, even worse- being sexually abused by the parent while threatening to hurt them if they spoke out.
Marion County gets over 4,000 reports of suspected child abuse each year. In more serious situations, the child gets placed in the welfare system while a case is open in the courts. Too often when people hear about a child in the child welfare system they only recognize that the child has been removed from their parents. In reality, the child has been removed from so much more: their parents, their siblings, their home, their pets, their friends, and their school. Through no fault of their own, their entire life is turned upside down. Everything familiar is gone. When this happens, it is imperative that the child has a champion. That champion is the Guardian Ad Litem Program.
Florida’s Guardian Ad Litem Program advocates for the best interests of children alleged to be abused, abandoned, or neglected who are involved in court proceedings. This means preserving the child’s physical safety and emotional well-being; finding a permanent placement in a stable and nurturing home environment that fosters the child’s healthy growth and development; and protecting the child from further harm during the child’s involvement in the court system.
Florida Statutes require that a guardian ad litem (GAL) be appointed at the earliest possible time in an abuse or neglect proceeding. After an appointment, if resources are available, the GAL program accepts the case and assigns a volunteer or alternatively, a staff advocate is assigned. The Program uses a team approach to represent children including: volunteers, case coordinators, and program attorneys.
Volunteers bring a community based, common sense approach to children’s cases. The GAL volunteer meets the child and gets acquainted with them, and then they talk with victim’s friends, family, and school officials as well as attend court hearings. The objective is to be able to get the bigger picture about the case so they can make thoughtful recommendations (required under the Under Florida Statutes) to the court in order to assist judges in making pivotal decisions for children, including placement, visitation, termination of parental rights, and adoption. Throughout the proceeding, the GAL also visits the child monthly in his or her home environment allowing the GAL gains to understand the child’s needs and wishes offering a chance to explain the court process to the child in an age-appropriate and compassionate manner. Volunteers are supervised by case coordinators who help them navigate the complex dependency system. Some case coordinators directly advocate for children and are called staff advocates. The case coordinators and volunteers receive essential legal counsel and support from program attorneys and pro bono attorneys. Program attorneys attend hearings and depositions, negotiate at mediations, and take on appeals. The unique perspective and expertise of each team member compliments the others and all are critical to advocate for the best interests of children.
Our local Guardian Ad Litem Program is though the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Sumter, and Marion County. Last month, 1,568 children were victims of child abuse in the circuit and of those, 476 of the victims are from Marion County. Due to the lack of GAL volunteers, only 442 children were accepted into the GAL Program, leaving 34 children behind. Every single one of these children needs a guardian, but there aren’t enough to go around. It is crucial for more volunteers to join GAL and be the much needed voice for these children. There are just 219 case volunteers that serve 442 victims. Imagine the difference that can be made in a child’s life if more volunteers stepped up as their champion.
If you are interested in standing up and advocating for a child experiencing the misfortune of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, please call Lynn Sennett at 352-274-5231. The next training for GAL volunteers is August 4-5 and 7-8 at the Ocala Police Department from 9am to 4pm.
Children are incredibly resilient; they can bounce back from the circumstances they’ve experienced. They key is to have a team around them that believes in them and loves them unconditionally. If you are ready change the life of a child who needs you and maybe even change your own life, then GAL is waiting for you. Child victims only have one opportunity to be a kid and with your support, they can look back and remember that through all the strife, a champion believed in them enough to be their voice in the mist of the suffocating, painful silence.