Ask the GAL column: Dozens of children die because of abuse, neglect

October 24, 2012 

Q: Does anyone track child deaths in Florida?

A: In 1999, the Legislature established the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee to be administered by the Department of Health's Children's Medical Services.

According to the most recent 2011 report, the committee consists of seven members from Florida Department of Health, Department of Children and Families, Department of Legal Affairs, Department of Law Enforcement, Department of Education, Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and Florida Medical Examiners Commission, whose representative must be a forensic pathologist. Another 11 members are appointed by the State Surgeon General to allow for the diversity of the state. This committee is charged with reviewing cases of children who die as a result of child maltreatment.

The report states that "there were 155 child deaths verified due to child abuse or neglect in 2010. This 2011 Child Abuse Death Review Report includes information on the 136 cases reviewed by the Committee this year. Data is presented in this report that examines how these children died, factors that contributed to the death caused by their caretakers and data-driven recommendations for preventing future child abuse and neglect deaths."

Out of the 136 death cases of children who died in 2010, 37.5 percent were from abuse and 62.5 percent were from neglect. While that number of deaths is actually down from prior years, any child's death is unacceptable and cause for the community to work even harder to prevent.

Q: Child abuse is a serious and complicated allegation. What qualifies a lay volunteer for the privilege of advocating in court for an abused or neglected child?

A: Florida has a unique but highly effective system to ensure that the courts look out for the best interests of the child victims of abuse. Many states require the child advocate to be an attorney. In Florida, a trained volunteer -- a guardian ad

litem -- works as part of a team with a staff coordinator and a staff attorney to advocate for each abused child.

People who do this work undergo great scrutiny. They must first have a passion for helping children. They then complete an application and have a face-to-face interview to be considered for the advocate training. The applicant must clear a national, criminal, background screening.

Once the applicant is cleared, they must complete 30 hours of training, in which they learn about child development and how an abused child may behave differently at different stages of development.

They learn about the investigation of allegations of abuse conducted by child protective investigators, about the different types of abuse and how they are manifested, and about the legal process and the role the state plays in the case. They learn about the expectations the state has for the parents and what the parents must do to be reunified with their children or the consequences for the parents if they don't comply. They learn who they must consult and how to gather the information they will need to convey their findings to the court in a written report.

In cases with special circumstances such as sexual abuse, volunteers must complete additional training before being assigned to work the case. For a volunteer to be appointed as an educational surrogate, they must complete a school board training.

Every year, each volunteer must complete an additional 12 hours of continuing education.

This past Friday, 160 guardian ad litem volunteers attended an all-day workshop where they learned about prenatal alcohol syndrome and the implications for infants, how to teach youth to make good decisions, how to read the non-verbal cues of children and parents, and how to resolve conflict.

Between continuous training and staff support, the lay volunteer guardian ad litem is well-informed and able to be a powerful voice for the child.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Bradenton Herald. Email her at askthegal@12gal.org, or write to the Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.

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