The Guardian ad Litem (GaL) program is looking for volunteers to advocate for children in the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect.
April is Child Abuse Prevention month, and the agency says there’s no better time to highlight the importance of these efforts, which give children a voice during what is likely a frightening and confusing time in their young lives.
There are 169 GaL volunteers from all walks of life in the circuit, which covers Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties. Theresa Roberts, GaL director of recruiting and training, says there is a great need for more volunteers.
“Hurricane Michael, COVID-19 and various personal reasons has caused our volunteers to leave the program,” said Roberts. “We desperately need new volunteers.”
Currently, there are 54 active child neglect or abuse cases in Holmes and Washington counties. There are just 25 GaL volunteers serving all 94 of the children affected by those cases. The other 144 volunteers are spread through the circuit’s other four counties.
Volunteer Rhonda Dickinson says she loves what she does.
“Some days are harder than other,” said Dickinson. “But the kids are worth it. They are why I continue to volunteer.”
Guardian ad Litem Child Advocate Manager Frank Everson says some volunteers carry multiple cases at a time, while some only carry one.
“I try to assign volunteers the cases that will be the best fit for them,” said Everson. “We like to utilize our volunteers’ strengths to suit the needs of the child(ren). Our older volunteers tend to carry a heavier case load because they can devote more time; however, some of our younger volunteers have careers and can only work on one at a time. We also don’t want to give anyone more than they can handle.”
Children from newborn to 17 years of age are represented by the volunteers during the court process.
Those who were placed in the foster care system and have reached legal age can opt to utilize the extended foster care program, which allows the child to have a GaL until the age of 21. The average case lasts approximately a year with volunteers spending an average of two to four hours per month on each case.
Guardian ad Litem Secretary and volunteer Hope Burton stresses there is especially a need for male volunteers.
“We only have three men volunteers right now,” said Burton. “Two are active, and one is inactive. We have found that older boys do better with a male volunteer because they can relate easier than a woman can.”
Volunteers are required to be 21 years of age or older and pass a background check. Training to be a volunteer involves an online course, courtroom observation and shadowing a veteran volunteer.
Everson says the organization works daily to live up to its motto, which is: “I am for the child.”
“We are the voice for the children who are abused and neglected,” he said. “Our job is to represent what is their best interest. Many of our volunteers grow close to the child(ren) and their families and continue to follow them for years into the future. Volunteers are the lifeblood of this program.” He added. “We couldn’t advocate for these kids without our awesome volunteers.”