CHIPLEY — Serving as a Guardian ad Litem volunteer advocate takes not only training — it also takes an open heart and common sense, said Fred Hapner, circuit director for the 14th Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program.
The 14th Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program, which includes Washington and Holmes Counties, started its regular training program on Aug. 12 in Chipley with a handful volunteers enrolled.
The State of Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is a network of professional staff and community advocates, partnering to provide a voice in court for the children and to create positive change on behalf of Florida’s abused and neglected children.
The GAL program uses adult volunteers who are concerned for the well being of children and have a continuing commitment to advocate for a child until a safe and permanent home is obtained.
There are 21 local Guardian ad Litem programs in 20 judicial circuits in Florida.
Every year more than half a million abused and neglected children are in need of safe, permanent, nurturing homes.
As trained advocates, GAL volunteers are appointed by judges to be a voice for these children in court.
A Guardian ad Litem is much more to a child than just their court advocate, according to the website, guardianadlitem.org.
“A GAL volunteer often becomes a role model, mentor, educational surrogate, friend, confidant, and most important, a consistent caring person on whom the child can rely,” according to the website.
The role of the advocate is to assess the situation in which the child is living and be able to make a recommendation to the agency and the court about the situation in which their wards are living.
“Is it neglect if there is no food in the home?” asked Fred Hapner, circuit director, who was leading the first training session for the new volunteers.
One of the advocate trainees suggests it might be the end of the month, and the coffers are bare.
“That’s a good point. Just because there isn’t food in the house, that doesn’t mean the child isn’t being fed.” Hapner said advocates have to not only observe the situation that the children are living in, but they also have to be able to put things in perspective.
That perspective is important for a GAL advocate, because their recommendations wind up going to the judge in Dependency Court, and can have an impact on the proceeding’s outcome.
“A lot of times this comes down to your own experiences and common sense,” Hapner said.
He also gave the example of a home having no electricity. “Would it be neglectful to be living in a home without electricity? We may think so, but a judge may disagree with us.”
The question becomes can you live without electricity, and Hapner said the answer is yes, even if it might be uncomfortable.
“In the good old days, there wasn’t electricity, or running water, or indoor plumbing, but that wasn’t considered neglect — that was just the way it was.”
Hapner said that reports from the GAL to the courts were based on the advocates’ information. “This information is backed up by what you have seen and heard at the home.”
Advocates are not investigators in the sense that they are out to solve a crime, Hapner said. “I had one advocate in Bay County who was a former FBI agent and he was always wanting to solve the case,” Hapner said. “We aren’t there to solve the case or find someone guilty, we’re there to look out for the child’s best interests.”
The advocate gathers information to be better able to make an informed recommendation on the behalf of the child or children involved.
The advocate is not out there alone, it is a team effort between the GAL staff, the attorneys, and the advocates.
GAL advocates gather information and facilitate things for the child and the family. “If you have resources, contacts that can help the family that is great,” Hapner said. “For example, if the power is turned off, and you know that if you call the church they can help, then by all means use those resources.”
Volunteers also are there to be advocates for the children. “Ultimately it is up to the volunteer to gather information and make a recommendation that is in the best interest of the child,” Hapner said.
The next training session for volunteers will be held in the fall. For more information about volunteering, call 747-5180.