Preventing Another “Phoebe” Tragedy – Letter from a GAL

A Guardian ad Litem Volunteer asks for help from the community to ensure that children have someone to be their “voice”

We recently marked the one year anniversary of the horrific tragedy in which a little girl named Phoebe was thrown off the Skyway Bridge by her father. This unspeakable act has touched the hearts of virtually everyone. Her case and other such dramatic cases get a lot of media attention and publicity after it is too late! This article is not another discussion of the sad details of Phoebe’s case. There have been many such articles. It is, however, meant to offer a practical solution to cases like hers.

I am virtually certain that Phoebe would be alive today if she had been assigned a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). There are many other cases that should also have a GAL, but we simply do not have enough to cover all of the cases. More volunteers are needed to help these children who, through no fault of their own, have been removed from their parents.

Like other states, Florida spends a great deal of money trying to better serve our children who, for safety reasons, have been separated from their parents. One or both parents could be the offender. Sometimes domestic violence has occurred. Other times it is felony drug use. In some cases an undesirable paramour is involved. Often it is a combination of these factors. There are many possible reasons for removing the children, at least temporarily.

I would argue that Florida must spend more to protect and serve these children. Budget requests are submitted each year and the Senate and House go through their machinations. Typically, these requests are not funded completely. In fact, sometimes the Florida Department of Children and Families has had their budgets reduced. State workers have not received a wage increase for many years, even though their caseloads have dramatically increased.

The good news is that we can have an enormous impact on this problem without adding significantly to our state, county and municipal budgets. How is this possible? It can be done by ordinary citizens, like you and me, taking the time to volunteer as a GAL.

Guardians ad Litem are appointed by the court to advocate for children who have been removed from their homes due to allegations of abuse, abandonment or neglect. Guardians ad Litem develop a consistent relationship with the child, serve as educational advocates, help the child to experience and participate in normalcy activities, and most importantly they make recommendations to the court to ensure a safe, caring, stable, and permanent environment for the child.

The average time needed is 10 to 12 hours each month. As a child’s advocate, a GAL visits the child every month, becomes familiar with the child’s case and makes recommendations to the court to help ensure the child has a safe, caring and stable environment. Most cases have court hearings every 6 months or so.

Children who are lucky enough to have a GAL will typically benefit because they:

• perform better in school
• are 50 % less likely to return to foster care
• have fewer placements (in caregiver facilities)
• receive more services
• are more likely to be adopted
• spend less time in foster care

Volunteer GALs are people who care and are willing to take the time and effort to help. They come from all walks of life. Some are still working or going to school. Others are retired and thinking about the best way to spend their retirement. I believe being a GAL is an excellent way to achieve that objective. No prior legal experience is needed. Guardians ad Litem receive initial training and ongoing assistance to help them make a positive difference in the lives of the children. A Master Guardian is assigned to mentor and support the volunteer at the beginning of training. Upon graduation after a few weeks, every volunteer is supported by a Child Advocate Manager and a GAL Attorney.

About 1,500 children in Hillsborough County still need a caring person to visit and advocate for them. The GAL Program is a wonderful organization that not only helps children but also benefits each GAL volunteer. It provides a way for us to become productive members of society. By helping others, especially children who are innocent victims of abandonment, domestic violence or drug abuse, we grow as responsible citizens. It is a “win/win scenario”.

In every case that I have had, the children have responded positively. Often it starts in the first visit. Sometimes it takes a little longer. They have been let down by the most important people in their lives – their parents. Once these children realize that their GAL will be there for them, they begin to realize that somebody really cares about them.

There are many state agencies that get involved in these cases. All are struggling to deal with the specific case issues. The GAL, however, plays a unique role. The GAL stands up for the children and makes sure that they receive the services and support required throughout their case. Judges and Magistrates rely on and value highly the recommendations made by GALs. In many of my cases when a particular course of action was being discussed, Judges have stated that they will not make that ruling without the GALs recommendation agreeing to it.

Some of you will remember those Uncle Sam recruiting posters that read “Uncle Sam wants you”! Well guess what? The Guardian ad Litem Program wants YOU! More importantly, THE CHILDREN NEED YOU! They have no way to ask for your help, so I am asking for them.

So if YOU want to do something that will eliminate or greatly reduce the possibility that cases like Phoebe’s will not happen again, become a GAL. I urge YOU to look at your current responsibilities and find a few hours to be that person who is doing something constructive about an important problem in our community. Let’s not expect the government to solve this. We just need to tap into the hearts of the many good people who will make fine GALs. These children need their own GAL. If this message resonates within you, YOU are one of those good people!

To find out more, visit www.galtampa.org or call 813-272-5110.

In other parts of the state visit the Guardian ad Litem statewide website at www.GuardianadLitem.org

Jim O’Malley is a Master GAL in Hillsborough County – 13th Judicial Circuit

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