Guardian ad Litem: Volunteers Advocating on Behalf of Children in the Legal System
By James Coulter
Volunteer Child Advocates are always needed. For more info visit: BecomeAGuardian.com.
Twenty-one hundred — 2,100 — that’s the number of children in the dependency system in Polk, Highland, and Hardee Counties. That’s how many children are in need of safe, permanent homes. Not every child is privileged to live in a safe, loving home. So it is the job of the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program to find children safe homes.
GAL of Polk County is appointed to three quarters of the children in the system, approximately 1,300. With the aid of dedicated volunteers and staff members, GAL ensures that children either find a new home or are reunited with their families once their guardians have overcome the issues that required them to be separated from their children.
This is the story of three such staff members and how they have helped children who need their help the most:
Kathy Ammon started her work in 2015 with the Guardian ad Litem program as a volunteer. She fell in love with the program and its staff after working two cases. She later worked as a child advocate manager more than three years before entering into her current position as a recruiter.
Having started as a volunteer, Ammon now works to draw in more volunteers to assist the countless children under their care. Her GAL staff consists of 22 child advocate managers in Circuit 10 who work alongside volunteers to contact children monthly and advocate for their best interest. Their volunteers are crucial to the program’s success.
“The volunteers are critically important,” she says. “We could not see all of the children without our volunteers’ dedication. They have a heart to help children. They can spend a lot more time forming a relationship, a bond with the child, and then even with the caregivers or the family.”
Every individual case proves unique and often involves people dealing with various issues in their lives. Substance abuse and addiction are some of the more prevalent issues that parents in the system often struggle with. As services in the county are overburdened, these parents often find themselves overwhelmed. GAL volunteers and staff usually go above and beyond to help them as well.
GAL volunteers and staff often go beyond the call of duty to ensure that their children receive the care they need. One example involved a child who needed emergency surgery. The volunteer and staff worked quickly to ensure the child received urgent medical treatment.
“The caregiver could not contact the case manager,” she explains. “So my volunteer called me, we gathered information and our attorney at 5 o’clock wrote the emergency order for the child to have surgery the next day. The judge signed the order first thing the following morning and the child was able to be admitted to the hospital. We can do some very important things and everyone from our office works together help a child in need.”
Mark Nixon doesn’t have any children at home; but at work, he and the Circuit 10 GAL team are responsible for more than 2,000 children —1,200 who are assisted through GAL at this time.
“It is a matter of making sure that every child, no matter their circumstances, [have what] they are expected to have [with] any and all opportunities to succeed,” he says. “I feel like if I had not been in that role in this organization, I may not have taken [this philosophy] to heart as I do now.”
Nixon entered the program in 2005. For the past 10 years, he has served as the program director and assistant circuit director. His service allowed him to win the Team Leadership Award in 2012, as presented by the statewide GAL Award Program.
While most other people would be proud of such accomplishments, Nixon considers his endeavors humble. He did not have any prior experience in child dependency when he started 15 years ago, but since then, he has become proficient in his occupation — to the point where he believes that, if he can do it, anyone can do it.
“Being with this program has certainly taught me a lot about responsibility and caring for your fellow man, especially when it comes to your own community,” Nixon says. “Over time, we are looking for everybody and anybody to help out be a voice for our child in the community, so I have been very fortunate to remain with the organization and grow in the organization.”
Pam Schumacher moved to Florida in 2012 shortly after her husband passed away. She left behind her old home, her friends, and her church. She left her old life and found herself in need of starting anew.
She learned from an old friend about the GAL program, and how her friend was able to help so many people by being involved with it. With plenty of time on her hands, and wanting to seek new purpose in her life, Schumacher decided to join Polk County GAL. She’s been with it for the past seven years, and they have been “the most amazing development” in her life.
“I did not feel I had a purpose,” she says. “So it was a good opportunity to know my place in this new community. It showed me a side of the foster care system that I did not know existed, it was so very valuable.”
Her previous experience as a mother proved valuable in her service through the program. Having previously taken care of the needs of her children, she was able to better detect and help meet the needs of the children in the cases she in which she became involved.
“They showed that my experience as a mom and just as a human being can be very valuable to a child who has been removed from their home. A child that just needs someone to listen, someone to do fun things with, someone who helps them go to school with what they need, someone who praises them for their good work in school, and is able to understand what that child needs,” Schumacher says. She finds it extremely rewarding to see a frightened, traumatized child find ways to cope, find their voice and receive comfort during the stress of adapting to living in a safe place — a foster home.
The biggest challenge with her cases involve determining why the children and their parents are in their situations to begin with and whether it be substance abuse or addiction, poverty, homelessness, cultural or language barriers, or any other systemic or personal issues. After all, the first step in solving a problem is determining the root cause of it, with the remaining steps being providing the resources to alleviate the root cause of the problem.
The GAL is part of a larger team that works to connect children and their parents with the resources and services they require to assist and support them to overcome their problems. Though challenging, each step forward helps move the family toward a safe reunification.
“Guardian ad Litem gets to see how a parent grows and changes around the needs of their child,” she says. To get that child what they need in the community or find what the parent didn’t have access to, helps break the cycle of ongoing need that might be passed from generation to generation.
Her past seven years of experience allowed her to receive the honor of winning the GAL 2020 Volunteer of the Year Award. Such an honorable accolade proves that anyone with the ability to make a difference in the community can do so if they so choose.
“I would encourage anybody with only a few hours to give, to consider taking part in this life-changing, community-changing, volunteer position,” she says. “You will never have more support to be a volunteer than in this program.”
For information about volunteering with GAL, please contact Kathy Ammon at 863-534-2531 or visit BecomeAGuardian.com.