Organization and its volunteers work to ensure the best interests of children are upheld in the court system.
When the justice system determines a child is abandoned, abused or neglected and cannot live at home in a healthy, safe environment, parental rights may be terminated and a court case begins.
As of April 16, the most recent data available, there were 24,289 Florida children in that situation, and 1,172 were in the 4th Judicial Circuit comprising Clay, Duval and Nassau counties.
One of the first steps after a case is opened is for the presiding judge to appoint a Guardian ad Litem to advocate for the child’s best interests as the case progresses.
He or she is a volunteer who gets to know the child and their family and follows the case until its conclusion, advocating only for the child’s best interests.
Circuit Judge David Gooding, who has presided in dependency court for the past 14 years, said the volunteers play a key role in due process. They appear in his court daily on behalf of clients and are “another set of eyes and ears.”
The guardians “help judges do what they have to do” by bringing common sense and critical thinking to the process, he said.
How it started
The movement to establish independent advocates for children in dependency courts began in 1977 in Seattle with the first “Court Appointed Special Advocates.”
Two years later, the Jacksonville Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women established the Jacksonville Child Abuse Task Force.
The Junior League of Jacksonville became involved and was awarded one of three national grants to create a pilot program to recruit and train child advocates who did not have a background in law to serve as Guardians ad Litem.
When the grant funding expired, and based on the early success of the program, the Legislature appropriated funds to expand the program statewide.
A safety net for a child
“We make sure the child’s voice is heard in court because they can’t represent themselves. We are the safety net,” said 4th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program supervising attorney Christine Meyer.
She’s one of 41 people who work in the Jacksonville office, including nine lawyers, 23 child advocate case managers and nine administrative personnel.
Their salaries, as well as contract services and certain other expenses, are funded by state revenue funds allocated by the Legislature, much like state attorneys and public defenders. The budget for the Jacksonville office is about $2.1 million this year.
The city provides office space Downtown in the Ed Ball Building, along with informational technology and other infrastructure.
The role of volunteers
However, the largest segment of the Guardian ad Litem team isn’t paid by the state and they don’t have offices in a city building.
They are volunteers, 438 of them as of last week, who are representing about 700 of the children who either are in a foster home or have been placed with a selected relative.
After someone applies to be a Guardian ad Litem volunteer, a background check is performed and they take an online orientation course.
That’s followed by 8 hours of classroom sessions and more hours of field training that covers all aspects of the program before the volunteer is assigned to a staff supervisor and then a case.
Another part of pre-service training is observing court proceedings and learning courtroom etiquette, said Circuit Director Vanessa Byerly.
“It takes about 30 hours to be fully certified,” she said.
‘I start off neutral’
Lauri Dieterle volunteered after her children were grown and has been a Guardian ad Litem for nearly 10 years. A former social services professional, she has worked with children in dependency court from infants to teens.
After Dieterle is assigned a case, the first steps are to visit the child where she or he lives and also investigate the biological parent or parents’ circumstances.
She said she has personal contact with the parent “even if they are in jail” with the goal to “re-unify” the family if at all possible.
“I start off neutral, but sometimes my opinion can change,” Dieterle said.
She visits each of her clients at least once a month and works to build a bond of trust with the child.
She is an active participant in the case, including testifying in court during hearings, until the final adjudication, which takes months or longer.
“It’s not a type of special privilege. “It’s broad experience and independent perspective. Any good judge listens to all witnesses,” Gooding said.
The program foundation
Another group of Guardian ad Litem volunteers usually don’t have contact with the children, parents or foster caregivers.
The Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Florida’s First Coast is a nonprofit that solicits donations that are used to help recruit and train volunteers and support children in the program.
That support can range from providing sandwiches and soft drinks for volunteers participating in the daylong training session at the Ed Ball Building to providing items for clients whose caregivers cannot provide them, such as clothing and school supplies, said Heather Solanka, a civil attorney at Camerlengo & Anderson and chair of the foundation’s 16-member board of directors.
In some cases, the need is for a necessity of life, like a mattress or a basic home appliance.
“Last summer, some children were placed with a family member who didn’t have a working refrigerator. They were using coolers, so we bought them a refrigerator,” she said.
The foundation’s signature event, “There’s No Place Like Home,” is a gala at the Duval County Courthouse.
It debuted in 2016 when attendees and sponsors from the legal and business communities donated about $60,000. That helped the foundation raise a total of nearly $128,000 that year.
The second gala was April 13. Solanka said donations and pledges still are coming in, but it’s expected that the event will net more than $100,000.
Even with the volunteers and fundraising, the group still can’t meet the demand for its help.
Byerly said only 62 percent of the need is being met and there are about 400 children waiting for a Guardian ad Litem.
“This field is not for everybody, but we welcome anyone who is over 21 years old to apply and go through the background check and orientation,” she said.
Visit galfirstcoast.org for information about volunteering or other ways to support the program.