IT TAKES A VILLAGE: A Voice for the Children

Originally published in Healthy Living, July 2015.


Guardian ad Litem (GAL) volunteers are with foster children from the beginning to the end of their journeys through the foster care and legal systems. In Lake County, 201 volunteers are serving 327 children, and more are needed.

Helping foster children doesn’t always require providing a spare room or an extra bed,.

In fact, one of the most important people in a foster child’s life is a volunteer who listens and guides them through the legalese that occurs in dependency court situations.

Guardian ad Litems are volunteers appointed by the court to protect the rights of vulnerable children who have been abused or neglected. Listening to the children is one of the most important duties of GAL volunteers who ensure the young voices are heard above all the wrangling surrounding their cases. The volunteer also makes independent recommendations to the court that are used to make decisions in the best interest of a child.

“When a child is removed from home, a shelter hearing is held within 24 hours and a Guardian ad Litem is identified almost immediately,” said Connie McMaster, Child Advocate Manager for Lake County’s GAL office. “The GAL volunteer is appointed at the first court hearing. He or she will follow that child until the child is no longer part of the dependency court system.”

Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program began 35 years ago with only 407 advocates, and many children faced the court systems alone. Today, there are more than 10,000 advocates statewide, and all 20 of Florida’s judicial circuits have local Guardian ad Litem programs, including countywide programs such as Lake’s program. While both the Department of Children and Families and the GAL programs work hand-in-hand to protect abused, neglected or abandoned children, their purposes are different. DCF assesses the risk and provides services to families through community-based agencies. GAL advocates exclusively for the best interests of the children. The GAL volunteer often provides an independent perspective for judges deciding a child’s case.

“To be an effective Guardian ad Litem, you need to know wishes of the child you’re representing,” said Murray McMahon, of Mount Dora. “I ask them to tell me what they want, and I assure them I will tell the judge. Unfortunately, their wishes aren’t always in their best interests because their first desire is always to go home to their mothers.”

As Guardian ad Litem volunteers, McMahon and his wife, Marilyn, have had more than 100 cases combined since training together in 2002. Although they worked separate cases, they often worked together and bounced ideas off each other.

“We found two heads were better than one,” said Marilyn, who had to stop volunteering due to health reasons.

McMahon’s first case was one of his most memorable and most successful. He represented a young brother and sister who were placed in foster care. He was with them during court proceedings where parental rights were terminated, as well as during adoption proceedings a few years later.

“We receive their new family Christmas cards every year, and I was able to attend the girl’s high school graduation a couple of years ago,” he remembered with pride. “Seeing how you had a positive influence on a child’s life is the reward for being a Guardian ad Litem volunteer.”

Robert Ribera, of Clermont, is about to celebrate his 11th year as a Guardian ad Litem. He’s advocated for 76 children over that period, and he said seeing a child’s smile often is the best — and sometimes the only — reward.

“I had a significant and sad case involving an 11-year-old girl,” he remembered. “I had to visit her school one day and she saw me from the schoolyard… She ran to me like a deer. Every time I visited, her face would light up.”

Although that particular case had a favorable outcome when the girl was reunited with her family, others do not always have happy endings.

“You have to deal with sad cases,” Ribera said. “You always remember, though, that they are just children. You hope you are helping in some small way.”

McMaster said the mandatory GAL training tries to prepare volunteers for the challenges of maneuvering through the legal system.

“They have to understand there will be successes and failures,” said McMaster, who has been with Lake County’s GAL program since 2000. “If they are committed, they will stick with children through good times and bad. The Guardian ad Litem volunteer is often the one constant in a child’s life during a very difficult time.”

McMaster noted that the 201 volunteers — 80 percent of whom are age 50 or older — in Lake County are the program’s backbone.

“They have made it successful because they are so generous with their time,” she said.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, and many are retired like Ribera and the McMahons.

Most spend about an average of 15 hours each month working on a case while others who take on a mentoring role often spend more time. The one thing that remains constant, however, is a love for children and a desire to make their lives better.

“It’s an extraordinarily rewarding opportunity just watching the children trying to make sense of what is going on in their lives,” added Ribera. “Even a 3- or 4-year-old child is listening when you are talking to his parents or caseworker. The satisfaction comes from knowing that you are helping.”


BECOMING A GUARDIAN AD LITEM VOLUNTEER

The need for more Guardian ad Litem volunteers is growing. It’s a way to help foster children that doesn’t require providing living arrangements or financial assistance. But, it does require training — at least 30 hours.

“If they come with the heart, we’ll give them the training,” said Sarah Jay, GAL recruitment director for the Fifth Judicial Circuit. “Our volunteers come from every field. They do not need a background in law or social services.”

Training is provided in three phases, with the first being an eight-hour independent study course. A 15-hour training class follows with the next session scheduled in Hernando County during the last week in August. A Lake County training class is set for the last week in November, but residents can attend training classes anywhere in the Fifth Judicial Circuit. The final phase requires the volunteer to work with a mentor in the field.

For more information about becoming a Guardian ad Litem volunteer, call 352.274.5231 or email sarah.jay@gal.fl.gov.


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