When Phyllis Mitchell was raising her two kids and teaching school in Miami, she knew several people who volunteered their time for abused or neglected children trapped in the legal system.
“I was under the impression it would take up a lot of time, and when you volunteer, you really want that time to count,” she explained.
After retiring to Islamorada ten years ago, her perspective quickly changed.
She recounted one of the first cases she received after an intensive training process with the Guardian ad Litem program.
A teenage girl had been removed from her mother’s home in Texas and was living temporarily with her father in the Keys. After several visits in which the girl remained quiet and reserved, Mitchell brought a handful of art supplies along on one particular visit.
“We sat on her back porch and talked, and I told her the judge was going to ask her where she wanted to live,” Mitchell remembered. “She finally opened up and said she was so afraid of being sent back to live with her mother who had a drug problem and an abusive boyfriend. Her court case was up the next day and I immediately told the case coordinator I needed to appear with her in court. She could have gone back into a very bad situation had someone not been there for her.”
For abused, neglected or abandoned children at the mercy of an overburdened judicial system, the Guardian ad Litem program works to provide an unbiased voice to advocate for them in the courtroom.
Leona Maggio of Key West said she’s felt quite fortunate with her life circumstances. Originally, from Boston by way of New York and Rhode Island, Maggio came from a great family, received a top-notch education and has been afforded the opportunities to travel and live in a variety of places.
When she docked her sailboat in Key West some 15 years ago, she looked for a way to give her time to those less fortunate than herself. What she found was the Guardian ad Litem program.
In Florida, the Guardian ad Litem program is a partnership of community advocates and professional staff that works to provide a voice for abused and neglected children within the state’s legal system. Many other states use a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program to provide a similar support for kids.
Maggio said the program could have focused efforts on the elderly or the homeless, but it just so happened they work for children.
“Nothing has been as rewarding as working with these kids,” she explained.
One atypical case to which Maggio has been committed for the past six years was one she read about in a local newspaper’s crime report. The youngest sibling, now in his early teens, has bounced between 15 different foster homes since the case was opened.
“She has been the only constant in their lives,” said LuAnn Diaz of Maggio’s commitment.
She’s not there to nurture them or to be a mother to them but to fight for them and make sure they get placed in a stable, safe home environment.”
Diaz is the supervising recruiter and trainer for Monroe County, and she said with established branches in the Upper and Lower Keys, they are really hoping to reach out to children in need in Marathon.
Michelle Coldiron recently accepted a position as staff case coordinator for the Middle Keys and is looking forward to working with local volunteers. After seven years as a mentor with Take Stock in Children and a background in child psychology, Coldiron said the position is a natural fit.
“I’ll be coordinating cases with volunteers as well as taking on my own cases,” Coldiron said.
“There’s a great need in Marathon for some role models to step up and help give voices to these kids in the courtroom, and there are a lot of wonderful people here who fit that bill.”
After a recent presentation to the Rotary Club of Marathon, she said there has been a great interest from several people who have come forward.
Maggio said she firmly believes in the program’s mission and even though tough economic times have forced hard-working residents to take on extra jobs, the time given as a volunteer for this program are worth every moment. For children who have been removed from their homes, possibly even separated from their siblings, tossed around in the court system and subjected to lengthy court battles over their future, Maggio said it’s nice to be a steady presence in their unsteady existence.
“Some people might worry that this could be a dangerous thing to do, but it is not at all,” Mitchell said of potential volunteers. “You can always meet parents on neutral grounds like the school or even facilitate a meeting with teachers. Your case coordinator always has good advice and can even go along on visits.”
Diaz said each volunteer’s level of commitment and time is different.
“To think people come in and do this for free continues to amaze me,” she said, adding that anyone willing to volunteer their time has a spot in the program – whether taking on a heavy caseload or assisting with paperwork and training.
For more information about the Guardian ad Litem program, please contact LuAnn Diaz at (305) 292-3485.
Pictured from left to right: LuAnn Diaz, Attorney Tom Hampton, Alexsa Leto, and Michelle Coldiron. Michelle is the Executive Director of the 16th Judicial Circuit Guardian Ad Litem and Middle Keys Case Coordinator. Michelle met with several potential volunteers in Marathon as they grow the GAL program by providing a voice for abused and neglected children.