Guardian ad Litem program

From left, are: Bobbie Brock, Jane Powell, Renee Oliver and Eric Love.

Every day we hear and read new stories about children who have been abused or abandoned by parents, who have become ill, died tragically or been incarcerated. In these and other similar situations, children are unequipped to make decisions for themselves. The Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program is powered by volunteers who fight for the rights, hope and dignity of children.

Child Advocate Managers, Jane Powell and Bobbie Brock, along with Administrative Assistant/Volunteer, Renee Oliver and Best Interest Attorney, Eric Love shared how the Guardian Ad Litem program works. According to Jane, the Guardian Ad Litem Program is a “Florida program that is appointed by the court, when cases of child abuse, neglect or abandonment come before the court.” The Guardian Ad Litem Program is not the same as the Florida Department of Children and Families. The court appoints Guardian Ad Litem volunteers to represent the best interest of the children in these types of situations after a case has been opened. They represent newborns to age 21, in cases of extended foster care. The children represented can be cared for by relatives, non-relatives or licensed foster care. Jane explained that placement can be temporary, because parents are offered services to remedy the situation, so their children can return home.

Eric shared, “While we fall under the Judicial Administration Commission as a State Program, we are primarily staffed by volunteers.” The volunteers are people in the community that meet with the children a couple of times of month, visit schools, doctors’ offices and similar activities. The agency is also tasked by the court to investigate and assess the children to see if they are happy, or maybe need some type of therapy, counseling or educational services. Finally, the agency is tasked with evaluating parent compliance with conditions to remedy the situation, as it relates to permanency options.

Eric added, “We look at the parents because the wellbeing of the parents affects the wellbeing of the child.” However, he also pointed out that “it is not just where the parent is as at, but a combination of parent-child readiness” that determines reunification. Then, the Child Advocate Managers meet with the volunteers as a team to discuss the cases and make permanency recommendations on behalf of the children. Jane added, “All of our cases are presided over by the Magistrate, David Johnson, or the Circuit Judge, James Goodman.” However, ultimately it is Judge Goodman that approves or disapproves of the findings. In this civil dependency court system, the goal is reunification with the parents within a year or less. Eric pointed out, “A year is a long time in the life of a child.” Once reunified, there is a minimum of six months protective advocacy for the child and referral services to help the family.

The group shared a story about a case from another County where the child was taken from the mother, after being born in prison. The mother and child were later reunified and are doing well now. While the circumstances that brought the child to the court can be heartbreaking, the entire team is invested in the best interest of each child. When the Court agrees with the Guardian Ad Litem permanency recommendations, it is a celebration for all involved.

The Guardian Ad Litem Program is extremely strong in the State of Florida, but Jackson County needs more volunteers. Jane explained, “Our current volunteers span from college students to retirees, and all walks of life in between.” Becoming a volunteer requires a person be a minimum of 21 years old, passing a background check and training provided by the Child Advocate Managers. The Child Advocate Managers match the cases with the volunteers according to their parameters on travel and similar decisions. According to Bobbie, “After volunteers have completed the program, they receive a certificate and are sworn in.” Once sworn in a volunteer will need to dedicate ten hours a month or more, which the team is flexible on. Eric shared, “It’s very rewarding!” Jane added, “It’s one of the most rewarding experiences people can have.” Renee explained how she once worked at Jackson Alternative School, and when she became a volunteer, she could better understand the full picture. “I really like being a volunteer,” she continued. After interviewing the group, I felt like it would be an honor to be volunteer with the Florida Guardian Ad Litem in Jackson County, and I encourage you to consider this opportunity.

What a great service for Marianna! While the local Guardian Ad Litem Office has been on the second floor of the Jackson County Court House for many years, you can visit the office at 4469 Clinton Street, Monday-Friday, between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. until the second floor of the county courthouse is completely repaired. The office is closed 12-1 p.m. for lunch. Jane Powell, other staff and volunteers can be contacted by telephone at 850-482-9127 or by email at Jane.powell@gal.fl.gov. Visit the City of Marianna’s website at http://www.mariannafl.city/335/New-Businesses-and-Other-Community-News to learn more about new businesses. Shop locally and support Marianna businesses.

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Kay Dennis, MBA, MPA, A.I.C.P., is the director of Municipal Development for the City of Marianna.

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