Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Spotlight: Don McIlwain

January 16, 2013 

Don was born in upstate New York and graduated from Bryant College in Rhode Island. He spent two years serving his country at Fort Knox, Ky., and worked in Utica, N.Y.; Singapore; Decatur, Ill.; Miami, where he obtained his MBA; and Minneapolis before retiring in Bradenton 13 years ago. Don and his wife, Barbara, have been married 50 years and have three sons and five grandchildren.

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

A: When I retired I wanted to do something to help children. I looked at a number of alternatives and the Guardian Program seemed to be a good fit. My professional experiences, managing businesses/people, have given me a broad perspective of how to solve and deal with multiple problems and situations. The main issue is that you have to treat people with respect, and by doing this they will be willing to work with you.

Q: How and why did you become a volunteer?

A: I became a GAL because I needed some intellect challenges, and playing golf and working in the yard did not provide this.

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

A: A GAL volunteer has a variety of challenges. You are dealing with children, all types of adults, the Juvenile Court System, daycare/school teachers, medical professionals, law enforcements, group homes and jails, child support, lawyers, Safe Children Coalition, and, most important, the parent(s) and relatives who want to get their children back. The program has met my expectations other than dealing with so many different entities. The guardian program is a good choice if you want to help children and their parents grow up and become good citizens, and if you are willing to accept some failures.

Q: What has been a sampling of your success stories? Who else has been instrumental in making positive changes on your case?

A: Success stories are parents who worked hard to get their children back, especially when you know the children and the parents love each other. Success stories are the nine children I have had adopted by loving/giving families. Success stories are grandparents or other relatives who have taken in the children to raise them so they have a real chance in life. In 12 years, there are a lot of people who have helped me to make positive changes in chil

dren's lives -- therapist, case managers, organizations like Hope and Manatee Glens, physicians and their staff, Children's Guardian Fund, the support from the Court, and the staff at the Guardian Program.

Q: What is a sampling of your frustrations?

A: The biggest frustration I have had to control is not getting responsiveness back in a timely manner. When I ran businesses and managed hundreds of people, if I asked a question, I received timely answers back. When dealing with all of the public/government organizations, your priorities may not be on top of their lists. The second biggest frustration is not getting the truth from parents and relatives.

Q: Would you encourage others to volunteer?

A: There are many people in our communities looking for volunteer service opportunities to provide them with personal self-worth. Most are not aware of the guardian program. It is challenging, but the rewards and successes are well worth the efforts. Anyone who is a good listener, patient, persistent, a good communicator and, above all, loves children, could be a good guardian ad litem.

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

A: More than 95 percent of my cases have gone the way I wanted. For those that didn't, the parent(s) made poor judgments near the end of their case plan and I had to reverse my recommendations. Reunifications take too long. All of my cases had the right outcome except one, where a single mom adopted a child and unfortunately had a stroke shortly thereafter and could no longer take care of the child properly.

Q: What changes would you like to see for children in dependency?

A: The major change I would recommend would be to allow parents to see their children much longer and more often. One hour a week of supervised visitation is not enough time to establish and/or maintain bonding between the children and parent(s). Of course this is assuming the parents are working hard on their case plans. When appropriate, unsupervised visitations should be authorized earlier, and followed by overnight visits.

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

A: This is the best question. The Guardian ad Litem Program and the Safe Children Coalition need to work more closely together. I realize the case managers and their supervisors have daunting tasks, but they should utilize the guardian as a helpful assistant and try to reach the same conclusion: what is best for the children. More and faster responses by e-mail and/or telephone are needed. I am sure the guardians can provide more assistance, and my recommendation is to have sessions with the coalition's managers to tell us how to accomplish this.

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