While the horrors of child abuse and neglect are all too common in South Florida, one organization utilizes caring and committed volunteers to stand in the gap for God’s children. A Guardian ad Litem is a volunteer appointed by the court to be a voice for abused, abandoned and neglected children and make independent recommendations to the court by focusing on the needs of each child she or he represents. Here’s why these volunteers are so critical.
Child Abuse and Neglect in South Florida
The Miami Herald’s “Innocents Lost” documents the stories of 477 children who were killed over a six-year period at hands of their caregivers. Most were under two years old. All of these cases had some level of history with the Florida Department of Children and Families – most cases had numerous reports regarding child abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, understaffing, inadequate resources and insufficient diligence resulted in each child’s death. Additionally, policies pushing for children to remain with family or be put back in the care of those who have previously abused them also contributed to the deaths.
A short excerpt from the overview of the 477 cases describes some of the themes that emerged. The report says, “They tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly, and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously; others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on an interstate. A two-year-old girl was killed by her mom’s pet python.”
The Bible reminds us that evil exists, and calls us to be salt and light in the darkness as we stand firm in faith, knowing He has overcome it all. While Easter reminds us that Jesus has already overcome darkness and reigns, we are invited to be part of “His”story as His ambassadors in our local communities. Mark 10:14 provides some insight regarding Jesus’s view on this issue. Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Each of the 477 children covered in “Innocents Lost” was a child of God.
James 3:13-18 provides further insight regarding the Christian response to child neglect and abuse. “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
God gives us wisdom. When we seek to know His will, His character, and His direction, He will reveal it to us through the opportunities that present themselves to us. As we become aware of vileness and disorder, we are called to step out of our selfish ambition and seek to bring God’s peace, mercy, and righteousness to bear on the situation. How can we be impartial and sincere ambassadors of God in the midst of darkness?
The Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program
The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program is designed to protect the interests and rights of children who are being abused and neglected. Steven Thacker, Volunteer Recruiter for the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program said, Our Mission is “Advocating for the child’s best interest is our only interest. “The program emerged out of the recognition that the court system didn’t have the resources to ensure that it had all the information to make the best decision on behalf of the children in the court system. A Guardian ad Litem is a volunteer appointed by the court to be a voice of abused, abandoned, and neglected children and make independent recommendations to the court by focusing on the needs of each child she or he represents.
Almost 700 Guardian ad Litem Volunteers here in Broward County make a difference in the lives of the 3,600 children who have been appointed to the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program by the Judges of the 17th Judicial Circuit’s Dependency Court. Guardian Ad Litem volunteers visit their assigned child at least once a month to provide eye-witness, direct testimony on how they are doing. They make recommendations for services such as therapy or tutoring as well as recommendations regarding permanency and placement recommendations. One GAL Volunteer, who Thacker refers to as “Super GAL” has 20 children assigned to him and visits one child nearly every day.
According to Thacker, “Broward County has the largest number of children ‘in the system’ for the entire State.” Thacker points out that without the Guardian Ad Litem volunteers speaking on their behalf, many of these children fall victim to being returned to unsafe environments or caregivers and are left in physical and psychological danger. He notes, “the Dependency [Court] Judges rely heavily on the GAL Volunteer to be their ‘eyes and ears’ when visiting the children, but most importantly, the GAL Volunteer is the ‘voice’ of the child in the courtroom.”
How to get involved
April is national volunteer month and child abuse prevention month. If you are at least 21 years old and have a strong desire to make a positive difference in the life of a child who needs someone to care enough to speak on their behalf, you can become a GAL Volunteer. For more information or a volunteer application, email [email protected]. You can also attend a GAL orientation any Wednesday at 6 p.m. at their office in Fort Lauderdale to hear more about the programs and the experiences of current GAL Volunteers. If you use social media, the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Facebook Page is an additional source for information.
All of us can be attuned to the care of children in their communities. If you suspect abuse, you can call the abuse hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE hotline. If you or someone you know is in need of services or support , you can also call 211 in most parts of the state.
“The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5).
The entire overview of Miami Herald’s investigation can be found at http://media.miamiherald.com/static/media/projects/2014/innocents-lost/stories/overview/#storylink=cpy
Terry Morrow, Ph.D. is the president of Morrow and Associates Partnership for Leadership and Transformation. She is an assistant dean and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at [email protected].