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SPOTLIGHT| Gloria Arthur & Makitia Dillard | Guardian ad Litem

For those who are not familiar, the Florida Guardian ad Litem program (GAL) is voluntary and is set up to provide an effective voice for Florida's neglected, abused and abandoned children. The program works in conjunction with the Circuit Courts. Florida law defines GAL as the person, "who is appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child in a proceeding as provided for by law … who is a party to any judicial proceeding as a representative of the child, and who serves until discharged by the court."

Key Points

Gloria Arthur

Makitia Dillard

Guardian Ad Litem

How did you become involved in your work with the Guardian ad Litem program?

Makitia:  

A friend of mine volunteered with the GAL program and encouraged me to join. I took the required certification class and have continued volunteering with the program for the past 5 to 6 years.

Gloria: 

I initially volunteered as a GAL about 13 years ago. After some thought, I wanted to get involved again. I recertified in December 2010.

How much time is dedicated?

Makitia: 

Time dedicated depends on the case and the needs of the children. At a minimum, each GAL is required to make one monthly visit for each case and must attend court every 6 months for a Judicial Review. Depending on the needs of children, the time involved can increase. Additionally, to maintain certification as a GAL, you are required to complete 12 hours of certification a year. The GAL program provides monthly 'lunch and learns' that count towards certification. If you are unable to attend the lunch and learns, the GAL program will provide upon request the reading material and/or CDs. Additionally, there are others things that can count towards certification, including reading newspaper articles, reading books and sometimes watching certain movies.

Gloria: 

You are only required to visit the family once a month, but depending upon the severity of the case, it's necessary to visit more often. For those of us who work full-time jobs, you might find yourself handling certain tasks in the evening or possibly on the weekend. As an example, during my Christmas vacation last year (2013), I spent at least 7 to 10 hours of my personal time doing various things for the children I am currently assigned to. You are also required to submit monthly "Visitation Reports." When the case is scheduled for Judicial Review before the Judge, you are required to submit a report that is filed with the Court outlining all case details, your concerns, and your recommendations. Your attendance at the Judicial Review is important – this is when you are truly an advocate and voice for the children. The Judge will ask for your input and address your recommendations and/or concerns outlined in the report.

What steps should someone take if they were interested in becoming a Guardian ad Litem?

Makitia: 

Contact the GAL program or contact a volunteer or staff member of GAL program.

Gloria: 

To become a GAL, you have to complete 30 hours of pre-certification training and participate in a pre-certification review.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have experienced?

Makitia: 

Not getting too emotionally attached to the children. Eventually they are either reinstated with their parent(s), get adopted or placed in a permanent home; and my job as GAL is then complete.

Gloria: 

I have found that the breakdown in communication between agencies is one of the biggest challenges I have encountered. A GAL is definitely instrumental in tightening that communication gap. Another challenge is the constant change of caseworkers. Basically, by the time you build a rapport with one caseworker, the case has been transferred to another. Unfortunately, this can have a negative impact on the children we serve.

What type of relationships have you developed by being involved?

Makitia: 

I have developed many relationships during my involvement with the GAL program. I've grown to know case coordinators, become friends with other GAL volunteers, and built relationships with the children in the cases. There are various parties associated with each case and many people involved, including group home staff members, foster care parents and other children in the group/foster care homes.

Gloria: 

I have developed a working relationship with those involved in the cases and a personal relationship with one family specifically.

What do you believe is the importance of this program?

Makitia: 

To ensure the needs of children are taken care of and to provide support, including emotional support, to them.

Gloria: 

The program is very important, and I would encourage others to help if they can, because these children are our future. The Courts are overloaded with dependency cases, and most times the parents have court-appointed attorneys. Often, the children get lost in the shuffle. This can be avoided when a GAL has been appointed.

Is there something you can share on a more personal level about your experience?

Makitia: 

I prefer to work with teenagers. Currently, I have 2 cases. The child in my second case is 17 and is the youngest of 7 children. She is a sibling of my first case, who is now 18 and has aged out of the system. They have been in the system since 1994 and have 5 other siblings who have also aged out. All 7 children have had their parent's right terminated, and only one of them has been adopted. The teen in my first case has ongoing mental and emotional disabilities, and was placed in the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) group home. The court jurisdiction for this case was extended until his 19th birthday to provide additional support to him. He will attend high school until his 22nd birthday and hopefully, as he grows, he will be able to gain more independence. The goal is that he can live on his own eventually (of course, with support staff in place) and work in a community that is accepting and accommodating. My second case involves the 17 year old female who is currently placed in a group home and placed in normal high school classes. The goal is set for her adoption before her 18th birthday, and she is placed on several adoption websites, including the Heart Gallery, which is a photographic and audio exhibit created to help find families for children in foster care. If she is not adopted before her 18th birthday, she will have services set up to help her live on her own and hopefully attend college. Both of my cases involve very sweet children that, despite their horrible backgrounds, seem to have very high spirits for the future and hopes for living their life as normal as possible.

Gloria: 

In September 2011, I decided to take a case involving 6 children, 2 of whom were badly abused by a relative. When I took this case, I had no idea it would have such an impact on my life, and I would actually grow to care about this family (outside of my responsibilities as their GAL). I worked very hard on this case and immediately had to deal with some major problems between various agencies and states. I couldn't get in contact with people to get answers. I had to call out-of-state agencies and facilities to obtain information and records, which was a major challenge. At the same time, I was trying very hard to secure counseling and other services for these children. To add to the issues at hand, the Mother of these children had her own set of problems. I spent countless hours of my own time helping this family, and I am so glad I did. I formed a friendly relationship with the Mother. She trusted me and opened up. When discussing very delicate and serious situations, I did not judge her. I listened to her, and my responses were honest. There were times when she didn't have any food for the kids to eat, and I would help her contact food banks. If that didn't work, I would go over and buy what I could to make sure the children ate. There were times when my sister helped buy food too. At one point, the children were in desperate need of clothing. I was able to get some help through a local agency, but the biggest help came from people right here at Butler in response to an email I sent out. To this day, there are 3 people in the firm that still give me clothing for the children. There is also someone that helps every year to assist with purchasing Christmas gifts for them.

The outcome of this case wasn't what I expected or wanted for this family and, needless to say, I was very disappointed. The case was closed before it should have been, and as a result, the children never got the proper counseling for the trauma they experienced. The outcome took a personal toll on me as well, which resulted in a 6-month break from the program altogether. I started back in October, 2013. Through it all, I maintained a relationship with this special family that forever changed my life. The Mother is currently in school, and although she is having some difficulty due to a learning disability that was never diagnosed when she was younger, she remains focused and refuses to give up. Because the children never got the intensive counseling they needed at the time their case was open, they are now showing signs of the trauma they experienced. Recently, because of another unfortunate incident, they may finally receive the counseling they need. I am now the family's step-Godmother (if there is such a term) and admit I've learned a lot from them.

What do you see down the road for your involvement?

Makitia: 

Continue to volunteer with the GAL program and to take on new cases once my current cases are completed.

Gloria: 

I might take it a step further and become a foster parent.

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