I began my career in the helping field more than 11 years ago, working at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center (PJAC) on the midnight shift. Most any kid who was arrested in Pinellas County after 11 p.m. passed by me to get processed into the PJAC. It was there that I became critically aware of the countless children in our community who desperately need advocates to look out after them, whose rights and needs are easily swept aside in the wake of laws, due process and other complications.
The PJAC is where I met “Natalie.” Natalie was a gifted 15-year-old student enrolled in a Pinellas County magnet school program. She was brought into the PJAC on a dependency order, which meant she didn’t actually have any charges against her. She could best be described as a runaway with many complications.
As is the procedure, I had to inform Natalie’s parents that she was at the PJAC getting processed and that they would receive a call from a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice detention screener later in the night to let them know what would be happening with their daughter. I spoke with her father, who became immediately enraged, telling me, "Keep her there, she’s not allowed back in the house." Also I was not to let Natalie's mother know she had been picked up because their son was about to go on trip to Washington, D.C., through a scholarship, and this would ruin the special honor for him.
I later learned that Natalie’s crime in the eyes of her father, the reason she was no longer allowed back in the house, was that Natalie told her parents that she is homosexual. For this reason, this child was abandoned by her parents, and the courts stepped in to process legal charges against the parents related to child abandonment and neglect.
The parents are building a defense with their lawyers, trying to protect themselves from the pending criminal charges. The courts have all the needed paperwork filed, and the judge has her orders signed and court dates scheduled on the docket. But who is looking after the needs of Natalie?
One person, a volunteer from the community, stepped up and offered to look after Natalie's rights and needs. This person is a guardian ad litem from the 6th Judicial Circuit, which covers Pasco and Pinellas counties.
What Is a Guardian Ad Litem?
I recently interviewed Maria Costa, community outreach coordinator for the Guardian ad Litem Program in the 6th Judicial Circuit, and she explained that a guardian ad litem is a volunteer who is appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of children in the dependency system (foster care). These children are in the system through no fault of their own – they have been abused, neglected or abandoned.
Costa explained that Florida statutes state that every child in the dependency system is entitled to a guardian ad litem; however, due to limited resources, many children do not have a volunteer.
“A guardian ad litem is an independent voice, advocating for the best interest of the children," Costa said. "The guardian ad litem has no other agenda than to see the child in a safe, stable and permanent home."
Guardians ad litem are each volunteers from the community. They come from all walks of life, and with them, they bring a diverse collection of personalities, experiences and qualities.
“Probably the most important characteristics of an effective guardian would be caring, determination and persistence," Costa said. "This is a tough job, so one must really care about what happens to the children. When you really care, you have the determination to ensure that the system does its best for these kids. Most of all, a great guardian ad litem is persistent because the system moves slowly, and things don’t always happen the way that they should, so it’s up to the guardian ad litem to be the squeaky wheel and speak up for the kids.”
Volunteer Guardian Role Is not Without Challenges
Guardians face some consistent difficulties, particularly when it comes to the slow pace involved with obtaining many community services and supports. Although there are many dedicated professionals working within the system, sometimes it can be very frustrating to fight for basic services for these kids who have already endured so much.
“It’s frustrating for us to make the same call two or three times to get a service in place for a child (such as counseling), but we know that if we aren’t there to follow up on the case and to tell the judge when a child’s needs are not being met, then that child may not get what they need in a timely fashion,” Costa said. “It can be frustrating at times, but that is what an advocate is called to do!”
The system is overflowing with need and not enough volunteers to help fill the needs. There are approximately 3,000 children in Pinellas and Pasco counties who are under court supervision. Due to a lack of volunteers, only about half of those children have a guardian ad litem. The program and similar programs in other counties have a critical need for additional volunteers.
As mentioned previously, guardians come from all walks of life — there is no particular educational or professional background required. An applicant must be at least 21 years old and pass a background check. The program provides the training and ongoing support. Costa says that although it is an important job, it does not take a lot of time. On average, guardians spend 10 hours a month working on a case.
A collection of local guardians speak out in this video about being a guardian ad litem and what it means to them.
If volunteering as a guardian doesn’t seem like a good fit for you, but you would still like to support the program, The Guardian ad Litem Foundation is a dedicated nonprofit with a sole mission to support the Guardian ad Litem Program and the children it serves. Anyone who wishes to make a donation or provide a fundraising opportunity may contact the group through its website, www.galf6.org.