Guardian ad Litem serves those who need it the most
“You really have the power to change a bad situation for a child,” said Marathon Councilwoman Michelle Coldiron, who has been a part of the Guardian ad Litem program for the past eight years. As a former coordinator, she oversaw 150 cases, and now as a volunteer she interacts with one child or family at a time.
Guardian ad Litem is looking for more volunteer advocates to help with the 250 local children in the program. Right now, about 60 volunteers are covering the Keys.
Coldiron recounted one of her cases that involved a physically abused 5-year-old. “She could still be in that situation, but now she has a chance at a great life,” she said. “It was fighting for her, and telling the judge that she needs specialized therapy so that she gets every chance to live a normal life.”
In Guardian ad Litem, the volunteer serves as a consistent, trustworthy person in the child’s life and advocates for the child in the court system. Most of the children are in homes where abuse, abandonment and neglect happen due to the adults under the same roof who are grappling with substance and mental health issues, or just not knowing any better. “Abuse comes in many forms,” said Guardian ad Litem’s Volunteer Recruiter and Trainer Anissah Tomas.
Tomas explained that the goal of the volunteer is to make sure the interests and needs of the child are being met after the children have been removed from the situations and placed with family members, or in foster care.
Lynn and Leon Clements moved to the Upper Keys for retirement, and knew this is what they wanted to do with their free time. Lynn has worked with two young families of three and a single child, while Leon has focused his energy on one teenager in the system.
“Each case is different, but the goal is to make sure the kids can be in an environment that they can thrive in,” said Lynn, who highly recommends this type of volunteer work to anyone. “All you need is a little love in your heart to make a difference in a child’s life.”
Leon focuses on stability for his teenager currently in foster care, and on school and college goals. Lynn chose younger children to work with and places emphasis on turning the cases quickly to either reunite the children with their parents, or get them into a permanent stable environment as soon as possible.
After 40 hours of training in three phases, volunteers can choose the cases they want to work with the support of the Guardian ad Litem team, which includes attorneys, advocate managers, and circuit directors. The volunteers then form bonds with the child, or children (most cases often have more than one child per family) through monthly meetings that take place at school, or their homes, and at various other places where the child will be.
“A lot of times the child hasn’t had someone trustworthy in their lives,” said Coldiron. “But, by showing up and showing that you care, they know that you are there for them and want what’s best for them.”
During court cases, the advocate gives his or her opinion to the judge in the cases.
“It’s heartbreaking to see a family fall apart, but sometimes it’s the best thing for that child,” said Coldiron. “It’s also heartwarming when we can keep a family together with rehabilitation programs, parenting classes, and therapy, and it’s rewarding to see a family out in the community, whether it’s the biological family, or foster and adopted families.”
As for the long-term rewards, Coldiron just attended the middle school graduation of one of the children she advocated for, who is now with her adopted family. “They said I was a part of their family because I helped their family become whole,” she said. “It’s things like this that let us know the more we fight for them, the better they will be.”