Ask the GAL: Volunteer spotlight on Sonja Hardin of Manatee

December 12, 2012 

Today's Ask the GAL column introduces a new feature: Volunteer Spotlight.

Volunteers will be asked to respond to questions relating to their work as a volunteer. Today's spotlight: Sonja Hardin, a Manatee County Guardian ad Litem.

Sonja was born in Texas and raised in an Army family until her parents divorced and moved to Florida. She graduated from high school in Fort Lauderdale. She has been married for seven years to her "fantastic husband", who works very hard to allow her to stay home with the kids and volunteer.

Q: What did you do before becoming a GAL? Did your former experiences help with your volunteer work and, if so, how?

A: Before I became a GAL, I was solely a stay-at-home mother to my two kids, ages 6 and 2 1/2. My work has usually been clerical since I graduated in 2005 from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Yes, my background in psychology helped me greatly. I have a base, which I use to help myself understand some tough family situations that may be hard to relate to. Coming from a clerical background helps me stay organized and schedule volunteer work around my personal life.

Q: How and why did you become a volunteer?

A: I became a volunteer after learning about Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, on a television show. I took the information and stashed it in a drawer, but even six months later it was nagging at me to get involved -- and I'm glad I did. I don't regret it one bit. I called around, got a volunteer coordinator, went to the training, and have been a volunteer for about 15 months now, currently carrying three cases.

Q: How would you describe your role as a GAL volunteer? Is this what you expected? How is it different? How would you describe it to someone else?

A: My role as a volunteer is simple: We advocate for the children. This means we have the child's best interest in mind and we relay that to the court. It is sort of what I expected. I guess I had this life-changing superhero moment in mind, but the process is slow and sometimes heart-breaking. I would tell anyone who asks that it is way more real than reality TV. It makes you take a step back and truly see what's going on with our fellow man. If that sounds like something you can handle, with all of its grittiness, then being a GAL may be for you. Q: What has been a sampling of your success stories? Who else has been instrumental in making positive changes on your case?

A: Well, to be honest, I can't say that I have experienced any success stories. It is still early in my experience. If the child is safe from harm and healthy, that is good. If the family unit is broken down, that has long-term effects as well. My volunteer supervisor, Cate Thorpe, has been a great help and mentor. If I ever have questions or need advice she is always there, and she is a great person to know in general.

Q: What has been a sampling of your frustrations?

A: A frustration for me is the court process. Things take time and everyone has an agenda. It makes it hard to get things done for the child if the parents refuse to do their part and make things right. It is hard to see a child taken away from a mother or father struggling with his or her own issues.

Q: Would you encourage others to volunteer?

A: Yes, I would encourage those who have the time to dedicate to children to do so. It is personally fulfilling and you are there for the children. It's not glorified and it can be discouraging, but if you think you want to help, then I would encourage anyone who is able, to do so.

Q: Have you been certified to transport children? How has that changed your relationship with the children?

A: I have been certified to transport recently, and I have a teen on my case that I was able to transport to court. I look forward to an outing soon. I think this will help build trust with children who have difficulty learning to trust.

Q: Do you feel like cases end the way they should? Do we reunify too fast? Slow? With the right party?

A: I only have one case near its end and I wish the outcome was different. It wasn't a reunification and I'd hoped for the child to go with a different party. For me, I think, at some point during the case you may be able to predict the outcome based on past behavior patterns of the parents. I believe the time frame of 12 months is generally enough for parents to show and prove themselves. Exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Q: How can we change the system to make it better for the children?

A: I think parenthood should be a relationship that is never permanently terminated. I also feel like many changes need to take place outside of the system in our communities and in our homes that won't make the system a necessity in regards to our children. They are precious and only need to be nurtured; this is a social responsibility that should be taught at a young age.

-- We invite readers to comment on the Volunteer Spotlight or to ask questions that may have been raised by the answers. E-mail your comments and questions to askthegal.org

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