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Delivering a voice

Each year, thousands of local children enter the courtroom in cases involving abuse, abandonment and neglect. In order to have representation that would foster the best interest of the children in these so-called dependency cases, judges must call upon advocates who are volunteers.

Guardian ad Litem, a non-profit organization, defends children who have been removed from their families and are in foster care or a temporary shelter. The volunteer is unlike an attorney because legal representation is not provided; simply put, crucial background information is provided in order to assist the attorneys in presenting their cases.

GAL was established in Florida in 1980 as a court program to help children who are completely dependent upon the adults around them to make decisions. The official Web site said the program makes sure “the abuse and neglect these children originally suffered at home doesn’t continue as abuse and neglect at the hands of a system too overburdened to provide sufficient attention.”

Hillsborough County alone sees more than 100,000 children in need of safe, permanent homes. The circuit court has acknowledged that too many of these children spend years moving from one temporary placement to another, and studies show that they would be more likely to face homelessness, unemployment and even prison as adults.

According to west Pasco’s GAL coordinator, Marcia G. Flannery, many children find themselves in court each year through no fault of their own. Several are victims of violence or neglect who need a friend and a voice to speak for them in the courtroom – to find the facts and help determine their best interests.

This is where GAL steps in.

“(The advocates) are charged with the responsibility of painting a picture for the judge of the child and the child’s family and circumstances,” said Flannery.

The whole process involves interviewing the child, parents, friends and specialists – anyone who can give extra information that will lead to a better understanding of the child’s situation. A report including suggestions on where the child will be safest, as well as any special needs that should be taken into consideration, is then compiled and submitted for the judge’s review.Without this unbiased input, judges are unable to make informed decisions.

“The beauty of this program is that the volunteers are lay-trained citizens,” Flannery said. “I think there is a lot of clarity in a trained volunteer reporting objectively. Our goal is to assist this child into a safe and permanent environment.”

Flannery said the most important role of a guardian ad litem, which means “guardian at law,” is that the advocate offers a completely unbiased voice.

Requirements for volunteering are simple. The candidate must be at least 19 years old, have access to a telephone and vehicle, and be a law-abiding citizen with a valid driver’s license. No training in legal or social work is needed.

The typical volunteer will take two cases on average, usually spending about 10 hours on each, doing research and conducting interviews prior to the first court appearance. Obviously, more complicated cases take longer.

LaVonda Smith, a south Tampa resident, decided to volunteer for the program after the children of a friend’s ex-husband were represented by a GAL advocate in north Florida.

“Don’t get me wrong, they don’t always like you at first. But they’re stuck in a bad situation, and many of them only know how to be defensive about it,” said Smith. “I know that I can make a difference in a kid’s life simply by listening to them.”

  • Contact Danielle Ritchie at