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Jax Daily Record Monday, Jul. 6, 201512:00 PM EST

Pro bono spotlight: Guardian ad Litem attorneys give voice to kids

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by: Christopher Guarino

The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is celebrating its 35th anniversary.

Over the past 35 years, the program has had over 30,000 volunteers and represented more than 200,000 of Florida’s abused, abandoned, and neglected children.

Today, there are over 10,000 volunteers statewide who continue this advocacy for the children who need it most.

The local program operates within the 4th Judicial Circuit, advocating for children in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

The program, through judicial appointment, represents children deemed dependent because they are victims of abuse, abandonment and neglect.

The program’s representation emphasizes the child’s best interest and is unique in that it is the only program that focuses exclusively on the child.

The program utilizes a team model to effectively advocate for the children. The team consists of a best interest attorney, a child advocate manager and a volunteer child advocate.

The best interest attorneys utilize the legal skills and knowledge of specific statutes and case law to ensure the child’s interests are appropriately addressed and, when necessary, brought before the court.

The child advocate managers, while also working as advocates on cases themselves, provide support and guidance to the volunteer child advocates, who dedicate their time and energy to the ensuring the child’s interests are met.

The volunteer assigned to each case acts as the voice of the child in court, and in most cases, continues their role in virtually every facet of that child’s life during the dependency process.

The volunteers provide a unique perspective to the case, advocating for the child’s rights, making recommendations to the court, requesting services for the child and even relaying to the court the child’s wishes.

Volunteers stay with each child until the case is closed and the child is placed in a safe and permanent home.

For many of these young victims, the volunteer may be the one constant adult presence in their lives during this traumatic time.

The 4th Circuit program advocates for and represents the best interests of more than 1,100 children.

Through the tireless efforts of the program teams, including the more than 570 certified volunteer child advocates within the circuit, these children are given voices. They also are helped to find their own voice, voices which often go unheard before the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem.

The program ensures children are heard and not forgotten. Without a program volunteer, these children are often left to navigate the child welfare system on their own.

Despite the positive impact the 4th Circuit program has, there is always room for improvement.

The program is always looking for new volunteer child advocates to be the voice for a child victimized by abuse, abandonment or neglect.

If you are interested in joining the program as a volunteer child advocate and want to be able to join in saying “We are the GAL program and we are for the children,” please contact us at (904) 255-8440 for more information.

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