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A Voice for the Voiceless

Changing the World One Child at a Time

By Addie Strickland

Having a friend and mentor—someone to trust—can mean the most during hard times. Every child deserves that, and through the Northwest Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation and similar organizations around the country, children in foster care are given a voice. A guardian ad litem is a special guardian appointed by the court to watch after and represent a child during a court case or suit to which the child is a party. When tragic events occur, children need someone to advocate for and protect their rights until they can safely reunite with their families or find a permanent home.

The Northwest Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation (GAL) was founded in 2011 by a group of volunteer advocates who identified the need to support children served by the state-funded Guardian ad Litem Office. The term ad litem is Latin for “for the suit.” The foundation is a nonprofit arm of the state funded by the Guardian ad Litem Office of the First Judicial Circuit, which encompasses the counties of Walton, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, and Escambia. Its mission is to provide for the needs of abused and neglected children and support the volunteer advocates in the Guardian ad Litem program. The state of Florida utilizes a comprehensive multidisciplinary team comprising a volunteer advocate, a child advocate manager, and an attorney to represent the child in dependency proceedings. This team works to support and put the child first by visiting the child in their foster home, group home, school, or on visitations with parents to evaluate their circumstances and identify any needs. During a time of displacement and unrest, these visits offer a consistent presence in their lives and are often the only constant when children are moved from one foster home to the next.

Like all of us, children have an innate longing to be heard and understood, yet being in a continual state of change and uncertainty about the future does not usually allow for intimate connections. A child’s guardian ad litem is one of the first visitors they will have after being moved to a new setting. These visits occur a minimum of once a month, fostering a connection and eventual relationship built between the child and the volunteer advocate or guardian ad litem. One child said about her GAL volunteer advocate, “She listens when I am scared.” Volunteers build relationships and trust with the children by going to the movies, taking them out for ice cream, or playing at the local park.

A guardian ad litem or volunteer looks for ways to support a child, such as providing them with new shoes and clothes, tutoring in school, athletic fees, or summer camps. When these needs are identified, the volunteer can request the funds to meet that need from the GAL Foundation. This support allows the child to flourish outside the home and attempt to maintain a sense of belonging and normalcy. Through the foundation, transportation is often provided, and academic support for testing or tutoring is available. When possible, the foundation will provide funding for these needs. For example, one young student in high school wanted to participate in cheerleading, and after she made the squad, the team was required to attend a cheer camp at Florida State University. However, being in the foster care system, her funds were very limited. Determined to go, the young lady and her teachers fundraised to cover part of the fees, and the GAL Foundation was able to provide the rest.

Through fundraisers and donations, the foundation can provide and care for these children while supporting the volunteers and guardian ad litems in our community. Approximately two thousand children enter the foster care system annually in Walton, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, and Escambia counties. With such a staggering number of children entering the system each year, only about fifteen hundred are served by the state Guardian ad Litem Office. A guardian ad litem advocates for the best interest of the child in the courtroom and the community through the duration of their time in foster care; however, with the high number of children in foster care currently and the limited amount of guardian ad litems, only 74 percent of the children are assigned a guardian ad litem. Without one, the child’s voice, emotions, and needs can go unheard, and the tragic cycle continues. Through the foundation, hundreds of children are served each year, and the goal is to have every child in foster care be assigned a guardian ad litem.

The GAL Foundation has a Children in Need Fund that covers athletic fees, shoes, clothes, and transportation. In addition to this wonderful work, they are launching a new program called Cases for Kids, giving each child a special bag they can call their own. When a child is moved from one home to another, their few belongings, if they have any, are usually packed in a garbage bag or pillow case to be delivered to their new temporary home. In many cases, the children do not even own a toothbrush or a pair of pajamas. This continual ebb and flow of moving “homes” hurts the child’s emotions and leaves them feeling as if they do not matter. As a result, these children are scared and lonely. Cases for Kids will provide a rolling duffle bag filled with age-appropriate necessities and comfort items. This initiative will send the message to children that they are seen, heard, and safe, and their needs will be met. The goal is to serve three hundred children through Cases for Kids this first year.

With hearts so big and greatly needed in this community, the members of the GAL Foundation are always looking to expand their reach through donations, raising awareness, and training volunteers. The abandoned and neglected children in the court and community are innocent of their circumstances and, at the very least, deserve someone to look after them. The Northwest Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation is filling a gap and answering the call of public service by supporting the volunteers who make this initiative possible and fundraising for children to have their basic needs met. The mission of this beautiful organization will touch families for generations to come.

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Individuals and businesses can learn more or donate by visiting NWFGAL.org. Keep up with upcoming fundraising events and learn more on Facebook and Instagram. Those interested in volunteering as a guardian ad litem can contact Carita Smith at (850) 461-3877 or email carita.smith@gal.fl.gov. If you are unsure about becoming a guardian ad litem volunteer but want to volunteer with the foundation’s special events, visit the website to register or email gingerdavisgal@yahoo.com. Donations are also accepted via check mailed to the NWF Guardian ad Litem Foundation main office (1800 West St. Mary Ave., Pensacola, FL 32501) or through Venmo @NWFGALF.

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