AskTheGAL: A new weekly column for your questions about helping abused, neglected children

April 18, 2012 

editor's note: This is the first of a new weekly column in the Bradenton Herald by Pam Hindman, director of the 12th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program. Each week, she and a panel of experts will tackle your questions in this column. Contact information is spelled out below -- and we welcome your feedback.

Right here in paradise, perhaps on your very own street, there are children who live with abuse and neglect. It could be a brother and sister in your neighborhood elementary school whose parents are hooked on prescription drugs and fail to properly feed, clothe and house their children. It could be a teenage girl who is a friend of your granddaughter who has had to change homes and schools three or four times during this school year.

Abused children are often invisible and right under our noses. All children deserve the opportunity to grow and thrive, to be treated with dignity, and to live in a loving and safe home.

Should we know more about these children who live in the shadows of abuse? So that we may all be more aware, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program is pleased to partner with the Bradenton Herald in a weekly question-and-answer column that will respond to the many queries and concerns that arise over children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.

The GAL program in our area covers the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties. In some states this program is called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) while in Florida and a number of other states it is known by the Latin name Guardian ad Litem. GAL volunteers are appointed by the court to advocate for the best interest of children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. GAL volunteers are supported in each circuit court by professional staff, including program attorneys.

The GAL program and its volunteers interact with a great variety of public and private agencies that are responsible for helping children who for no reason of their own have become victims of abuse and who are under the supervision of the state court system. As a result, the GAL program is in a unique position to help the community better understand the many issues surrounding child abuse, foster care, adoption and related topics. Readers are invited to ask questions, and the column will attempt to give clear and accurate answers. When your columnist is unsure of an answer, she will turn to sources who do know, which will be acknowledged.

Question: Who can become a Guardian ad Litem and what does a volunteer actually do?

Answer: I have people often ask about our name, Guardian ad Litem, which is Latin meaning "guardian at law." A volunteer is a person appointed by the court to make recommendations as to what is in the best interest of the child during the course of legal proceedings.

To become a GAL, the volunteer must be at least 21, a full-time resident of Florida, have a valid driver's license, have a computer and be computer literate, have no record of a felony or prior history of abuse of a child or adult, and must attend 30 hours of training before being certified.

Once trained, the GAL makes recommendations to the court on critical issues such as permanency, placement, visitation and education. The GAL monitors the progress of the case, attends case meetings called "staffings," and appears at court proceedings. The GAL champions services for the child that meet the child's needs in all areas of the child's life including mental and physical health, medication, education, immigration and education needs.

The GAL informs the court about the wishes of the child, even when those wishes may not be in the child's best interest. In order to make recommendations to the court, the GAL must develop a relationship with the child and child's family. Volunteers are required to visit the child at least once a month in the place where the child is currently residing.

Working together in this column, you as readers with good questions, and we with thoughtful answers, will strive to bring a ray of light, hope and understanding to the children living in the shadows of abuse.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, is writing this weekly column for the Herald. Readers who have questions for AskTheGAL about child abuse, foster care, child protection, adoption, other related topics, or who might be interested in learning more how to become a GAL volunteer should e-mail Pam at askthegal@12gal.org, or write, Pam Hindman, Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton, 34205.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

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