April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and this one is unlike any other. Coronavirus and social distancing present challenges we have never before faced. Yet from what I've seen, professionals and volunteers in the child protection system are working harder than ever to keep children safe.
I'm the director of the Guardian ad Litem Program in Florida's 14th Judicial Circuit, which serves Washington, Holmes, Bay, Gulf, Calhoun, and Jackson, counties. When an abused or neglected child comes into the dependency system, a judge appoints a certified volunteer to represent the child in court. That volunteer becomes an expert on the child, serving as the judge's eyes and ears, so the court can make decisions about the child's best interests. Staff attorneys and social workers work with the volunteers as a team.
For now, as directed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Chief Justice Charles Canady, we're doing most of this remotely, keeping in touch with the children we represent by video or phone.
I'm heartened that despite the challenge, the Guardian ad Litem Program continues to fulfill its statutory mandate of advocating for children. And so are our partners at the Department of Children and Families, the Executive Office of the Governor, Prevent Child Abuse Florida, and Big Bend, our local community based care lead agency.
Right now, due to the coronavirus, households that already were stressed are feeling more so due to unemployment and/or income loss. The risks to children are higher, too. Guardian ad Litem staff and volunteers are responding by shoring up newly-reunified parents to keep those children safe. And we're getting basic needs to families, like groceries, diapers and laptops for school.
During Child Abuse Prevention Month, we always ask communities to think about how they can protect children. There's something everyone can do. First, pay attention to the kids in your neighborhoods. Watch for signs of abuse and neglect. If you're uncertain what those are, visit the DCF reporting site at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us. You can also phone in a report at 1-800-962-2873, Florida Relay 711 or TTY: 1-800-955-8771.
Second, think about what fragile families need to get through this. They may need diapers or a meal – can you drop something off? They may be trying to home-school without computers or WiFi – can you help?
Finally, I want to thank the many helpers in our community – health care workers and first responders, delivery people and truck drivers, law enforcement officers and teachers. Reading the stories of how you've helped others is what keeps me going some days. And if you could see our staff and volunteers in action, that would inspire you, too.
To learn more about the Guardian ad Litem Program or to become a volunteer, visit GuadianAdLitem.org or call 1-866-341-1425.
– Fred Hapner, Circuit Director for the 14 th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem