Guardians ad Litem are in great need in Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE — Have you ever wondered what a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is? Maybe you have heard of them and have some idea what the term means but don’t really understand what is involved. Maybe you have wondered but did not know who to ask. Possibly you thought you had to be a lawyer. It sounds like a legal term. Maybe you thought you had to take the children into your home to live with you.

Several of the staff and volunteers from the Guardian ad Litem program had an open house at Brown Cow Sweetery on Feb. 25 to answer some of the most common questions about the program. Supervising Child Advocate Manager Wendy Rodriguez said their job is to advocate for children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected and come into care for those reasons. In Okeechobee, Judge Laurie Buchanan assigns them to the cases, and then they advocate on behalf of the child or children.

GAL’s role allows flexibility
The focus of a GAL is, “What is in the child’s best interest?” This is a broad umbrella, said Ms. Rodriguez. A GAL has a lot of freedom in the things they can ask for that maybe a case manager can’t.

In January, there were 135 children in dependency care in Okeechobee. Out of those, the GAL program was appointed to 109, but of those, only 54 had an assigned volunteer. That means in the month of January, there were 81 children who needed a volunteer and did not have one, she explained. “Our goal is to reach 100% representation by July of this year.”

The GAL gets to know the child on a different level than a case manager does and is able to share with the court what the child’s wishes are and what their best interest is. Sometimes these align and sometimes they don’t, she said. They have found that the courts truly listen to what the GALs tell them, because they see mom who has an attorney, dad, who has an attorney, the case manager, who is represented by Children’s Legal Services (or CLS, which is a program of the Department of Children and Families), and then there is the GAL. Out of all those people, only one is volunteering his time and has no ulterior motive — the GAL. They have found if the judges are stuck when trying to make a decision, they put a lot of weight on what the GAL says. The program is very well respected and has a lot of credibility.

Jamie Franks-Johnson, child advocate manager, said when they have a case, there is a team — a child advocate manager, a volunteer and a best-interest attorney. The team gets together to decide what their recommendations to the court will be. Their entire focus is on the children and what is best for them. They go to court twice a year for judicial reviews, which is like a status report to the judge. There are other hearings on occasion, but these are the two main hearings for the volunteers to be present and testify to the court. In Okeechobee, there are 13 guardians ,which is double the number from a year and a half ago, she said.

They do want the number to grow but also want to be sure the people who become GALs are in for the long term. “A child may have three or four case workers, and we want their guardian to be someone they can depend on. That’s the person who knows the whole case from beginning to end, usually.

“I also want to mention, there were 135 kids in care in January, and there are only four foster homes in Okeechobee County. That’s a significant need here as well. So, we not only need guardians, but there is a need for people to help in various ways with children in dependency.”

“GALs are there for the child: who has been abused, who is afraid to go home, who thinks it is her fault or his fault, who is forced to keep a secret or else, who has been neglected, who does not know where his next meal is coming from, who has fended for herself and her little sister, who is alone, who has never been to a doctor or dentist, who was taken away for her own protection, who is in foster care, who does not know how long he will be there or who these people are or if she can trust them, who is in her third or fourth or fifth foster home this year, who has attended four schools in two years and sits in another class surrounded by strangers, who believes no one cares, who has never been told he is loved or smart or beautiful or talented or worthy. GALs are there to listen to those children and speak for them, to champion without compromise for what is in the best interest of those children.”

Visits are of utmost value
Danielle Truett said one of the biggest responsibilities of a GAL is to visit the child. You visit them at home, at school, touch base with the therapist, visit with them while they are visiting their parents, etc. She began volunteering when she saw a flier at IRSC and decided to check into it. She went to the training and got started. Her first family was really what sucked her in and helped her know she wanted to make this her career, she said. There were three children, and they were removed from their parents because of domestic violence. They were with a family member, and she was able to help them navigate the system. “It felt really nice to be there for them. Even though the case closed a year and a half ago, I still get texts and pictures on Christmas and other times letting me know how well they are doing,” she said.

Jennifer Manis, administrative assistant, said it is a common misconception that all the children who are in dependency are in foster homes, but in reality, many of them are placed with relatives, and this is usually the best place for them, because they are familiar with the people. If this is not possible, a foster home would be the second best solution, but in Okeechobee, there are only four at this time, and they are sent elsewhere, often far away where they must go to unfamiliar schools and have no friends.

Voices for Children is a nonprofit whose goal is for every child to have a GAL. Thus, its mission is to provide financial assistance to the GAL program to recruit, train and retain GAL volunteers. President of Voices for Children Gary Tenpas said one of the many things they do is to help with things the kids need or want like a baseball bat or a baseball glove or dance lessons or summer camp — things other kids get to do but the kids in the system might not normally be able to do. Their nonprofit can make those things happen for these children. If you are interested in donating or would just like to know more, the website is voicesforchildrenotc.org.

John and Gerry Moore work as a team for the children they act as guardians for. Mr. Moore said: “We get to spend a whole lot more time than the other folks who are involved with the case. We spend at least an hour every 30 days with the family and just observe how the kids are reacting to their surroundings, take a look to see what their living conditions are, see if the kids are behaving or not, make sure there is food in the refrigerator, that they have a bed and a bedroom to sleep in, clean clothes. We check to see how they are doing in school and if they need help with anything in school. Make sure they are visiting the doctor when appropriate.” Most of the reporting they do to the courts is done via computer, Mr. Moore explained.

Time commitment manageable
The commitment for a GAL volunteer is about five to 10 hours per month. More time is needed in the beginning when they are getting to know the child and family members, but it slows down later. Volunteers can transport children, but they must go through a process before this is approved. All new volunteers must take 30 hours of service training. It involves independent study that can be done online; classroom training, which involves two eight-hour days, and field work. In addition, a Level II background check is required. There is no training currently scheduled in Okeechobee, but if enough people were interested, they would be happy to schedule classes over here; otherwise, Okeechobee volunteers can join in the classes on the coast.

Information on GAL can be found at guardianadlitem.org or by calling 866-341-1GAL.

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