Dedicated to Judge Mike Andrews
Screams of fear from my mom and brutal glass shattering noise was what woke me in the middle of a cold night. Walking half asleep into the kitchen, walls covered with my mom’s blood, I saw my mother crouched in a corner. Dad hovering over her tiny frame was about to strike again. That is when I launched my little 7-year-old body with all my might in her defense screaming at my dad challenging him to stop. His then ice-cold gaze in my direction seized me with absolute terror. In the end, I went to bed pretty bruised-up that night, but mom was left alone.
On another occasion, I was reading quietly in the back seat of the family car one Sunday afternoon on our weekly family drive. The noise from their constant arguing kept escalating in volume but that did not bother me. It was pretty common for them to get loud. That is until blood suddenly splattered in my face and all over my comic book from a single blow to my mom courtesy of a man who I was supposed to call dad. She was bleeding profusely with a broken nose.
As a volunteer Guardian Ad Litem, I can tell you these two incidents while difficult to relive are a glimpse into some of the things that happen day in and day out in the communities we serve. About five years ago sitting quietly with guests at my house around the fire pit while my three children slept, these memories were triggered again with screams of terror from a nearby neighbor. That is when I decided, following a previous discussion with a dear friend, that I would never sit idle again not doing my part to help. Just like I did for my mom back then.
In Florida, there are more than 19,000 children in out-of-home placements as of Jan. 15, 2020. Such numbers make finding good homes for at-risk children a challenge. That’s part of why we at the Guardian ad Litem Program – who advocate in court for abused, abandoned, and neglected children – need your support.
It’s in every citizen’s interest to step up, and here’s why: There are more than 400,000 American children in foster care. Their average length of stay is 25.3 months, according to the Ackerman Institute for the Family – and they have rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) similar to veterans of war. What’s more, children who age out of foster care without a family are four times likelier to enter the criminal justice system as adults and 17 times likelier to be homeless by the age of 21.
One way to help is volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem. Children with an advocate are twice as likely to be adopted as those without — and they stay in foster care for shorter periods of time.
You can also donate to non-profits that support children in foster care with everything from school supplies to scholarships. We have non-profit partners in each judicial circuit, helping local children served by the Guardian ad Litem Program.
● To learn more about Guardian ad Litem or to volunteer, visit www.GuardianadLitem.org or call 1-866-341-1GAL.
● Explore adoption: A joint effort by the Governor’s Office of Adoption and Child Welfare and the Florida Department of Children and Families at www.adoptflorida.org.
● For adoption support within the state of Florida, contact the Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association at www.FloridaFAPA.org.
● The North American Council on Adoptable Children at www.nacac.org offers a free webinar on adoption benefits assistance.
But while not everyone can take in a child – or be a Guardian ad Litem representing one in court – everyone can help reduce the number of underserved and often neglected children without families.
● Thanks to social media, groups all over Florida support foster parents. The statewide Foster Florida is at www.fosterflorida.org, and they post families’ specific needs.
● Make dinner for a foster family, buy them a gift card, or babysit to give caregiver(s) a break.
● Bikers Against Child Abuse, Florida Chapter, at https://florida.bacaworld.org.
Here are some of Guardian ad Litem Program’s Major Accomplishments for Fiscal Year 2018- 2019:
• 38,997 total children represented
• 10,000+ citizens who volunteered as GALs
• 508 pro bono attorneys donated legal services
• GAL’s “Defending Best Interests Project” collected more than 4,600 hours of donated legal services to defend the best interests of children — $1.3 million worth.
• A partnership with the Florida Association of Women Lawyers, “FAWL in Love with GAL,” connects teenage girls with lawyers who mentor them and provide positive role models. Our new “Total Engagement” program establishes a one-stop shop for law firms and attorneys to find pro bono projects to support the children and families we represent.
• The Program has public-private partnerships donating critical resources to the children we represent, including the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, Sunshine Health, and the Akerman Law Firm.
• In addition to consistent assistance from county governments, the Program is supported by 20 not-for-profits, one in each judicial circuit. They provide resources from meeting the needs of individual children (e.g., school clothes, MRIs, camps), to funding positions, organizing GAL volunteer recognition events and helping recruit foster parents.
GAL works to improve the quality of representation for children, including:
• Creating a certification program for our Child Advocate Managers in collaboration with the Florida Certification Board to enhance representation with professional credentialing.
• Facilitating Board Certification with The Florida Bar for our attorneys, who represent over 10% of all Florida attorneys who are Board Certified in Juvenile Law.
• Our training curriculum, the “I am for the Child Academy,” is web-based and publicized to everyone in the dependency community at no cost. The Academy has thousands of registered users and offers not only basic dependency training, but webinars on more complex child welfare issues and free CLE trainings for lawyers.
• At the direction of Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, GAL Executive Director Alan Abramowitz is chairing a subcommittee of the Children and Youth Cabinet aimed at reducing youth suicide, with a focus on mentoring as a key strategy.
• Since volunteers are such a critical part of our advocacy, we also are partnering with Volunteer Florida to reach more people who want to help abused and neglected children.
Mariela Ollsen who like us all is an avid motorcycle enthusiast has been the Circuit Director for the Sixth Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program for three years. Previously, she worked for the program as a Child’s Best Interest Attorney.
*Mariela Ollsen and husband–Photo courtesy of Mariela
Mariela says the issues faced by children and youth are very close to her heart. “These kids are going to be the future, but kids in the child welfare system often lose hope. But I think the consistency and encouragement provided by our volunteers can restore that hope.” As the Circuit Director, Mariela oversees four Guardian ad Litem offices in Pasco and Pinellas counties, with more than 900 certified volunteers. The Sixth Circuit GAL program faces many challenges, with 3,344 children in the dependency system as of November 2019; of these, our volunteers were appointed to represent roughly 1,848 children. We love our volunteers and need more.
That said I must say after ~5 years volunteering as a Guardian, it has not been easy but the rewards of knowing I am helping to make a child and possibly a parent safer by far surpass anything I can think of. I believe the sentiment is true and one we should all stand by and that is simply to leave no child behind. Please consider this my invitation to join me to protect children.
Isaiah 1:17 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
**Photos of children courtesy of Guardian ad Litem
Florida Night Train: www.facebook.com/FloridaNightTrain