Guardian ad Litem volunteers were honored last week by the Children's Guardian Fund at a luncheon at the Lakewood Ranch County Club.
Judge Deno Economu recognized the 230 volunteers with his remarks about our "defining moments," those instants where we choose to do good or evil, right or wrong, and how those defining moments impact the lives of the parents, the volunteers and the children they serve.
Ask the GAL provides an insight here into two of those volunteers and their work as child advocates. Volunteers Maria Marin-Diez and John Reichner respond to questions relating to their work as Guardian ad Litem child advocate volunteers.
Maria and John moved to Manatee County in 2005. Maria had worked for major multinational corporations as a senior executive assistant, and John had served as in-house counsel for General Electric Co.
After several years in the region, both started looking for opportunities to volunteer in a community hit hard by the recession. They have been with Guardian ad Litem about four years.
Maria has also joined the All Faiths Food Bank as an executive assistant; John has retired and helps coach several of the Manatee County scholastic rowing teams.
Q: Does your work experience help with your volunteer work and, if so, how?
A: Maria's experience as a senior executive assistant has required substantial organizational, communication and follow-through skills -- all of which are necessary for her GAL activities. Her language skills (she is from Spain!) have been brought into play in the number of Latino cases she has had.
John's experience as a lawyer and familiarity with the court system has been helpful, but his years of coaching college and scholastic rowing teams have actually proven more valuable, as this is really about children first.
Q: What motivated you to become Guardian Ad Litem volunteers?
A: Maria was looking for something where her bilingual capability would be meaningful when she happened to see an article in the Bradenton Herald where the Guardian Ad Litem program presented its need for volunteers, especially Spanish-speaking and/or African American. This article sparked Maria's interest since she would be able to use her language gift with her love for children.
John also found the Guardian Ad Litem program's mission to advocate
for children who suffer neglect and abuse within the legal system to be a perfect match. We decided to work as a team, husband and wife, particularly to be able to backstop each other if there were competing demands for our time.
Q: How would you describe your role as GAL volunteers? Is it what you expected?
A: The rewards far exceed the frustrations -- when you see a child end up in a far better situation, that's a wonderful feeling you carry with you every day. What's frustrating is wanting to get to that successful conclusion more quickly.
Q: Do you feel like you are supported in your advocate role?
A: The support we get from our GAL supervisor, and others within the GAL organization (including other volunteers!), has been nothing short of incredible. Questions are quickly answered, and they help us sort through what sometimes appears to be a maze of state and federal programs and requirements.
Q: What are the frustrations and challenges you have encountered?
A: One of the greatest of challenges is always time -- how slow some processes work. It seems to take ages for documents to become available, for procedures to be initiated and completed, for communication to flow. At the same time, we have developed an appreciation for how understaffed and stretched the state's resources are to support these children in need.
Finally, and we cannot emphasize this enough, it is tragic how so many of our cases have substance abuse (whether alcohol or drugs) as one of the root causes of child abuse and neglect. We both believe that the cost of substance abuse to these children and society in general remains grossly underestimated and misunderstood.
Q: Do you have difficulty becoming too emotionally attached to the children in your role as an advocate?
A: As an advocate you keep a close relationship with the children, getting to know them, while talking and listening to them. We both ended up falling in love with each and every one of the children we advocated for. But, we've always kept in mind the best interest for the child and the child's return to a caring family is the main goal of our mission, hopefully with the child's parents, and, if not, within a new, loving home.
Q: How can we change the system to make it better for the children?
A: We could spend all day on this one, so we'll just limit it to finding solutions to the following issues: (1) creating incentives for more and better foster parents; (2) ensuring that the financial burden on caregivers is alleviated; and (3) ensuring there is adequate funding to help a thinly stretched corps of case workers. When we short-change today's children, the overall cost tomorrow increases more than we save today.