When parents are dealing with drug or alcohol dependency, the children suffer. When parents are under financial pressure or other types of stress, the children suffer. These children often become victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Who speaks up for these children when they must be rescued from a bad situation?
The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program supports children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected and are involved in Dependency Court proceedings. A Guardian ad Litem attends court proceedings, visits the child every month in his or her home and speaks to the court on the child’s behalf. A guardian is involved with the child’s safety and well-being. The relationship between child and guardian depends on the needs of the child. Volunteers are permitted to take children over five on special outings such as visiting the park, getting ice cream or watching a baseball game. During this quality time, the children develop a trust in their guardians.
There are currently 2,600 children involved in dependency cases who were taken from their abusive situations in Broward County, according to Steve Thacker, community development coordinator for the Broward County Florida Guardian ad Litem Program. These children range in age from birth to 18 years of age. Although there are 700 volunteers in the program, more are needed since 400 children still have no guardians. The children come from all walks of life — from wealthy, middle-class and poverty-stricken backgrounds. They all have one thing in common: they are innocent victims struggling in a situation not of their making.
Thacker states, “Outside the courtroom guardians ad litem (GALs) serve as the eyes and ears of the judge and are the voice of the child inside the courtroom.” The goal is to give the child as normal a life as possible. These volunteers strive to bring stability to the child’s life. “You are the one constant that they have- that they know they can count on,” said Thacker.
Hilary Creary, circuit director of the Guardian ad Litem Program in Broward County, has been involved with the program for six years, and said she has a heart-felt desire to ensure that every child’s voice is heard. “All of us in our community have an obligation to repair the trauma experienced by our children so that they can live safe, happy lives”, Creary said.
The children need us
Nathan Handley, who serves as a Guardian ad Litem, has been a volunteer for a little over six years, beginning in Erie, Pennsylvania. He claims that he has two full-time jobs, one being his work with the Guardian ad Litem Program. He currently has four cases involving ten kids. Handley said that the kids who have the benefit of a guardian do better in school, have higher self-esteem and have lower rates of substance abuse.
Laura Sherman , also a guardian, shared her story. “Last Christmas was very quiet for me. My small family of just my brother, his wife and little girl had plans to leave town, so we had a small celebration the weekend before Christmas. While I was alone on Christmas, some deep thought went into why I had no family of my own. I hadn’t met Prince Charming, at least not the one I would marry, and I always dreamed of adopting children instead of having my own. So, I thought it would be the ultimate gift to provide for a child that was already here.”
Having volunteered as a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Fort Lauderdale since 2007, she was searching for other ways to make a difference in children’s lives, and she discovered the guardian program on the Web.
“I understood these children lived the heart-breaking stories most people have nightmares about,” said Sherman, who was moved to volunteer. “I knew it would be hard to face, but it is ten times harder for the children going through it.” She had an interview, orientation and three 9-hour trainings in order to be certified.
“My eyes and my heart have been opened through this experience, and I hope I can continue to make a difference,” Sherman shared.
How to get involved
If you are at least 21 years of age and feel a passion to help a child, you can be a part of this life-changing program. There are classes offered every month. The training involves 30 hours for certification and takes place over three days with nine hours each day including three hours of court observation.
Many children in South Florida need someone to speak up for them. The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is the voice for these innocent victims. Through these guardians, the children have a voice.
For more information on how you can volunteer, visit www.GalBroward.org