Guardian ad Litem helps protect the most vulnerable children

March 6, 2013 

Every child deserves a happy ending, yet on any given day in the 12th Judicial Circuit, there are 1,200 abused, abandoned or neglected children whose ending is being determined by the Dependency Court System because their parents failed to meet a minimum legal and societal standard of parenting.

The effort, or lack of effort, on the part of the parents in rectifying the shortcomings that brought the children into care will determine the outcome for the children. The court will allow the parents a year with assistance to achieve sobriety, change anger management habits, learn parenting skills, have adequate housing and employment, and more. If the parents achieve an acceptable parenting standard within that year, they can be reunified with their children.

What happens to the children while the parents are learning these skills? Children, from birth to 18 years old who are abused, abandoned or neglected, are removed from an unsafe, parental home and placed in a safe environment. The more fortunate children are able to be placed with a grandparent or relative with whom they are familiar. Others go to foster or group homes to be cared for by strangers.

After suffering the indignities of physical, sexual or emotional abuse at home with their parents, children now have to cope with the uncertainties of unfamiliar people, lifestyles, foods and traditions. No matter how wonderful a foster home or grandparent home, it isn't their home. Is it any wonder that they are confused, afraid and in need of an advocate to make sure that their best interest is served?

Who is the person to step forward to advocate for that innocent child? Each time a child abuse case comes into the court, a guardian ad litem is appointed to report back to the court regarding what is in the best interest of that child. That guardian ad litem is a trained volunteer who is donating their time and expertise to make sure that the child ends up in a permanent, forever, safe and loving home with the least disruption possible.

The GAL learns how to gather the information necessary to assess the child's needs from teachers, doctors, relatives and others. In the end, the GAL will make a recommendation as to the safest, most permanent placement for the child.

The 12th Circuit has 420 active guardian ad litem volunteers representing a thousand children. More than 50 percent of the children are younger than 6. Many have educational issues that are exacerbated

by multiple placements. Others suffer with mental health issues of anxiety and depression. Teens often "age out" of the system before completing high school and tumble into the adult world without being prepared.

What can be done? The volunteers who step in to speak for the children are truly heroes. Many of them are your neighbors and friends. Take a minute to talk with them about their work.

If it sounds like something you would like to explore, please call Jo Havers at 941-708-4614, email jo.havers@gal.fl.gov, or visit our website at www.12gal.org. You can be that person who stands up for a 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 FL 34205.

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