BY ASHLEY D. THOMAS
The Guardian ad Litem program of the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court is seeking people with the time and heart to fill a gap of child advocates in Volusia County. The circuit covers Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and Saint Johns counties.
Of the more than 900 Volusia County children currently in court case proceedings, 774 of them fit the criteria of needing an advocate. Of the 774 children, 300 do not have one.
“The children we advocate for have been removed from their homes due to allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment,” Lael Prytherch, the volunteer recruiter for the Guardian ad Litem Program of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, explained.
“Our volunteers are everyday people. They make sure the children’s best interests are heard so they don’t fall through the cracks.”
Voice of the child
Guardians ad Litem (GALs) are not the same as legal guardians and are often appointed in under-age-children cases, many times to represent the interests of the minor children.
They are the voice of the child and may represent the child in court, with many judges adhering to any recommendation given by the advocate. They may assist where a child is removed from a hostile environment, usu- ally by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and in those cases may assist in the protection of the minor child.
“In dependency court, where a child is removed, the state has an attorney, the mother has an attorney, the father has an attorney, the other father has an attorney, depending on how many people are involved. But the child really has no voice unless there is a Guardian ad Litem appointed to that child,” explained Barbara Jacobi, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the Seventh Judicial Circuit.
“And that person, that volunteer, and our program behind that volunteer represents what is in the child’s best interest, be- cause everybody standing in front of the judge has an interest in the outcome of the case.”
Impacts all backgrounds Although there are children who have an advocate due to being in the foster care system, some children find themselves involved in a case due to the watchful eye of people who pick up on much smaller cues.
It may be an administrator at a VPK (voluntary prekindergarten) program, a nurse at the doc- tor’s office or a daycare provider that notices something isn’t quite right.
“We have them from all ages, starting from birth,” Prytherch continued. Instances where children are immediately removed from the parent could be if the child is born with drugs in their system, but advocates are need- ed for kids up to age 18.
Neither race, age nor socioeconomic background is immune to the system. However, the rate of Black children involved in court proceedings hovers closely to the makeup of the population.
Taking care of their own
As there are negative disparities across the board on so many other statistics – including, lower test scores and higher incarceration rates for Blacks – Prytherch, who has data on thousands of children in Volusia, has a hunch that the pattern is static because of the way the Black family takes care of its own.
“Black communities tend to stick together more; families take care of their own more,” she said. “That is just my interpretation of it (the data), and I don’t have anything to back that up.”
The amount of Black children in the system is around 18 per- cent whereas the Black population is about 11 percent.
What the volunteer does
Prytherch said volunteers are given a file that has information about why children were re- moved from their homes, police reports, and other pertinent information. The volunteers then find out more about the child by visiting them.
“These are children that may have had eight foster homes, multiple case workers, their par- ents may or may not be doing what they need to do to get these kids back, and these kids have suffered a lot of loss,’’ she explained.
“We don’t want to be another person that is in and out of these kids’ lives,” Prytherch continued. “We aren’t counselors, we aren’t therapists, we are just people who care.” The goal isn’t to have the child removed from the caregiver, she remarked. “If it is a good placement, let’s help.
“If you have a case with a 1 year-old you may get on the floor, play with them. It doesn’t have to be perfect (the home environment). It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to be safe. Say for instance, it is 1 year-old and there are some exposed wires. Do you remove the child or could we maybe help with that? Pull a dresser in front of it, go to Home Depot and buy some electrical tape and cover it up.”
Advocate weighs in
Robert “Mickey” Waters, a volunteer with 16 years of experience and hundreds of cases, says that the help is needed.
“Because I have been here this long, and we have the choice of which cases we are offered and if we want to take it or not, some of the volunteers base their decisions on how much travel is involved or how egregious it is. I’m not interested in those things, and I don’t want a fluff case where someone has spanked a child. I know the difference in a spanking and a beating and I only take the most egregious cases.
I tell the newer volunteers to start with one they are comfortable with,” he began.
“There was one case where a young mother who was 23 years old had five children, different fathers, and had given up the first child in another case out of state. I was introduced to the case when a child showed up to the hospital with some injuries.
“Eventually her (parental) rights were terminated one at a time. Reunification just wasn’t possible. We found a couple that were able to adopt the children, twin boys. Fortunately a relative of that couple adopted the third child and another relative adopt- ed the fourth. The children will always be able to see and have access with their siblings. They were all adopted into families with strong core values,” he said.
Best interest of children
“The children will be able to have opportunities to things that they would have never had,” Waters continued. “I am sad in my heart for the mother, because no matter what the misgivings, she is still the mother. The father of the youngest child had put his child in in a tub of scalding hot water, the child was five or six months old.
“What could a child that age do to deserve that? Any child? But that is the world that we live in. We have to always take in the best interest of the children and, yes, sometimes it hurts, but we have to be concerned with their best interest.”
Prytherch continued, “Best interest is a million different things for a million different kids. That’s why we need our volunteers. No one else has the time in all honestly. They will have a state case- worker and the caseworkers are amazingly hard workers, they may have 15 cases they are doing. They are not only looking out for the best interest of the kids, best interest of the parents, best inter- est of the foster parents, so in reality they are kind of putting out those fires and can’t hit those little things. But volunteers that have one or two cases, they are going to get it.’’
Goal: Stable, permanent home
“If you look at the statistics, kids that have a volunteer rep- resenting them are in the system roughly half the amount of time than kids who do not have a volunteer. Our kids that have a volunteer have better educational outcomes, they are half as likely to come back into the system because we help make sure that foundation is there.
“We save the counties that we are in a lot of money. Education- al outcomes are better so schools get more funding. It costs a lot to have kids in foster care.
Prytherch added, “I have seen where the judge in the court- room has shushed everybody and pointed at the Guardian ad Litem and said you, you tell me what to do.
“The goal for everyone is to get these kids in a safe, stable, permanent home as quickly as possible. That is the end goal.’’
Volunteer training takes 30 hours with trainees also taking part in a court watch program to view actual court cases for an additional three hours.
For more information in be- coming a volunteer Guardian ad Litem, contact Lael Prytherch at 386-453-1362.
Guardians adLitem(GALs) arenotthesameaslegalguard- iansandareoftenappointedin under–age-childrencases, many timesto representtheinterestsof theminorchildren.
Theyarethevoiceofthechild andmayrepresentthechildin court, withmanyjudges adher– ingtoanyrecommendationgiv– enbytheadvocate.Theymay assistwhereachildisremoved fromahostileenvironment,usu- allybytheDepartmentofChil- drenandFamilies(DCF)andin thosecasesmayassistinthepro- tectionoftheminorchild.
“Independency court,where achildisremoved,thestatehas anattorney,themotherhasan attorney,thefatherhasanattor– ney,theotherfatherhasanat– torney,depending onhowma- nypeopleareinvolved.Butthe childreally hasnovoice unless thereisaGuardianadLitemap- pointedtothatchild,”explained BarbaraJacobi,directorof the GuardianadLitemprogramfor theSeventhJudicialCircuit.
“Andthatperson,thatvolun- teer, and our programbehind thatvolunteerrepresentswhat isinthechild’sbestinterest,be- causeeverybody standingin frontofthejudgehasaninterest intheoutcomeofthecase.”
Impacts allbackgrounds Althoughthere are children whohavean advocatedue to