Jacksonville’s Guardian ad Litem program keeps children on course.
Jacksonville’s Guardian ad Litem program is one of the most impactful and important child advocacy programs in the city; yet so few people outside of the legal and social work industries even know it exists, let alone what it does.
Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a legal term for an individual who is appointed by the court to serve as the exclusive advocate for a child in the court system. As defined in the Florida Statutes, a GAL “is appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child in a [legal] proceeding.” Ad litem comes from the Latin “for the suit.”
Individuals who serve as guardians ad litem serve as “the voice of the child” and make decisions based on the child’s needs, first and foremost, as opposed to what may better suit family members, foster care providers or attorneys. GAL participants are volunteers and do not need legal experience, though many are in the legal profession.
Felecia Walker is a lawyer with Edwards & Edwards, specializing in family law and bankruptcy, who serves as the board chair for the Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Florida’s First Coast, serving abused, neglected or abandoned children in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.
“As we know, sometimes the system doesn’t work,” she continued. “And that [GAL volunteer] in the community where that child lives, goes and investigates, helps gather information, observes the child and the family and makes sure that the child is getting everything that they need.”
While volunteers do not need experience in the legal field, they must complete GAL training and pass a level two background check, among other criteria. Other than that, Walker said, the only requirements are the time and willingness to take the responsibility of reporting to the court.
“Some cases are fairly simple. … The parents do their plan, accept the services that are offered, and the children are in and out of the system really quickly,” she explained. On the other hand, there are cases that involve severe neglect. “Sometimes it’s difficult to handle emotionally, some of the the abuse and the photographs and things that you see, and not everybody is equipped to deal with that.” As a result, GAL volunteers pick the types of cases they want to work on and number of hours they want to devote.
Another reason for a child to have a GAL is to give them some sense of normalcy.
“These aren’t juvenile delinquency types of situations where kids have done something bad. They’re living in what should be an innocent childhood, and then the people who are supposed to love them, have harmed them or neglected them in some ways, and sometimes just pure abandonment,” she said. Walker added that the state does a good job at providing funds for foster care families or caregivers, such as when a family member steps in to care for the child, but, as she pointed out, raising a child is expensive, and the money the state does pay doesn’t cover everything.
That’s where the Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Florida’s First Coast comes in. “[We] raise funds to be able to provide those things that make these children’s childhood normal. Shoes, backpacks, school supplies, sometimes summer camps and things that children’s families don’t have the extra money to be able to do,” Walker said. “Sometimes, extracurricular activities, which may seem frivolous to some… are the only constant thing in some of these children’s lives.”
The best gift a child can receive, of course, is love—and knowing someone in the world truly cares about their well being.“Sometimes guardians ad litem being involved have literally saved children’s lives,” Walker said. “Literally.”