As a follow up to WUWF's series highlighting National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, we're taking a look at what happens when abused, neglected or abandoned children are removed from their homes. In such cases, they can wind up Juvenile Dependency Court, where presiding judges often call on the Guardian ad Litem Program to provide advocacy for those kids.
“I felt like everything was led for me,” said Betty Prescott in a Voices of the Guardian Ad Litem Program testimonial video. “I had no voice. I had no say in anything that was going on in my life.”
Prescott, now an adult, was once a Guardian ad Litem child and described what it meant to have someone working on her behalf.
“When I did call her (volunteer) crying, she would answer. When I did see her, she would bring me art supplies. She got me a clarinet to help me channel into productive things.”
In the First Judicial Circuit, which includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties, the current need for such individuals to advocate for children is great.
“We have 2,100 kids in the dependency court system, which is basically children that have been abused, abandoned or neglected,” said Joan Irby, recruitment coordinator for Guardian ad Litem. She noted that almost 1,000 of the children are in Escambia. She says the situation has reached crisis level.
“Escambia County removes more kids than any other county in the state of Florida. Our crime rates are high here, our abuse rates are high and as a community, we’ve got to step in and do something different.”
The goal of the Guardian ad Litem program is to provide each one of those children with their own volunteer advocate, someone that’s only concerned about the needs of the child or family of children.
Here’s how the process works.
Irby says in the state of Florida, where everybody is a mandated reporter, the need for a Guardian ad Litem advocate, typically begins with a report of child abuse to the state’s hotline: 1-800-96-ABUSE.
“At that point, an investigator goes out, checks the allegations, comes back before the judge at what’s called a shelter hearing, and at that point the Guardian ad Litem is assigned,” Irby said. “And, then that’s when children are removed from their families.”
It is at this point in the process that the children could be placed in foster care, with another relative, or at a Florida Baptist Children’s home.
The Guard ad Litem program, which is what it’s called in Florida, falls under the umbrella of the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (or CASA) Association. Each circuit has a program and each county has an office. Irby says the main difference in Florida is that the program follows a volunteer model.
This means, each child gets assigned a team of individuals to include a social worker, an attorney, and a GAL volunteer.
“So, instead of a caseworker or social worker having 50-80 kids on a caseload, she (volunteer) just has one child or one family of children that she’s advocating for,” said Irby, explaining that it’s a lot easier to keep up with situations in the child’s life and to best advocate for them. The volunteer reports to the attorney and social worker, who are responsible for advocating in court.
As noted, there are currently more than 2,000 children in this circuit’s dependency court system, so Guardian ad Litem needs a lot of help.
“As the father and guardian of a young man with special needs, I’m thankful every day for the opportunity to see to his care,” said Pensacola Symphony music director Peter Rubardt. He’s among several the community leaders, who have been enlisted to help in the call for much-needed volunteer advocates through the “I am for the child” recruitment campaign.
In the video message, Rubardt talks about the need for volunteers to speak up for children who’ve been abused, abandoned or neglected to help ensure they have a safe environment.
“I’m Peter Rubardt, and I am for the child,” the video concludes.
Other community leaders recording the videos include businessmen Sandy Sansing, Buzz Ritchie, and Quint Studer; as well as Pensacola attorney Fred Levin and Police Chief Tommi Lyter.
Irby says becoming a Guardian ad Litem volunteer is fairly easy. Individuals have to be 21 years old, have a clean criminal background, and the ability to commit for at least a year, “Because the judge, once a child comes into dependency, wants permanency for that child within twelve months.”
Having a “heart” for kids is essential, but you don’t have to have kids to qualify and there’s no educational requirement. All you need is time to see the child at least once a month and time for training to include the basics of child abuse awareness.
“We kind of give you that history; we kind of give you the legal breakdown, but we don’t expect you to be an attorney,” said Irby of the training, which includes about 36 hours total of online coursework and classroom days (offered on weekdays and weekends), followed by two hours of court observation.
“You know, people come and they’re like ‘Oh, I want to do this,’” said Irby of volunteer enthusiasm. But, she notes assignments don’t come right away. “You might come in today and start the process but, you’re not going to have a case next week.”
According to Irby, the Guardian ad Litem volunteer model saves the state of Florida nearly $22 million in salaries and benefits. But, she believes the greatest value is to the child.
“It’s been proven that a child that has a safe person in their life, as an adult, that their risk factors from childhood trauma go down because of that safe person. Their placements don’t change as much. They have someone advocating for their school needs for educational advocacy.”