As we approach the holidays, many of us have much to be thankful for. Before our Thanksgiving meals, we often take time to say why we are thankful, but many children and youth – some of our own classmates – will not be doing the same.
That’s why November is National Adoption Month, a time to focus on the children and youth in the foster care system and to celebrate them finding forever homes.
The Florida Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program is one factor that helps children in foster care. When children are removed from their homes because they’ve been abused or neglected, GAL volunteers are appointed by a judge to represent the children in dependency court.
Larnelle Scott, a GAL community outreach coordinator and recruiter in the Tampa Bay area, says the role of the program’s volunteers is to represent the best interests of the children.
“Our goal is to ensure that every child’s future is served while going through the foster care system and that they reach a permanent home in the not-too-distant future from them first entering the system,” Scott said.
The volunteer’s role is to get to know the child, visit and support them throughout the case, and provide information and recommendations to judges.
Calvin Martin, the program’s chief innovation officer, has been with GAL for 17 years. In his current role, he leads the program in implementing best practices, new child advocacy efforts and emerging opportunities for enhanced volunteer management practices. During the pandemic, Martin noted an important issue has emerged from a world gone virtual.
“The pandemic has impacted the disparities that are already in place in the child welfare system,” he said. “We initially saw a significant decrease in the amount of children coming into foster care.”
That might seem to be a positive outcome, he explained, but it can also be riddled with concern.
“This has layers to it. For instance, school not being in-person at the beginning of the pandemic has allowed for less eyes to be on children, which appeared to have resulted in less abuse reports being called in,” Martin said.
This is another reason why GAL is looking for more volunteers.
Derrick Perez, a young GAL volunteer in Hillsborough County, is an accomplished filmmaker, experienced advocate and an adopted son.
“On top of my career as a filmmaker, I am also a child advocate and fight hard to protect children and help them find success,” he wrote on his LinkedIn page. “I know what it’s like to be in the victim’s shoes and am passionate and willing to hold their hand and walk them in their journey through healing.”
Through his 27 years in child welfare, Martin has been able to see many sides of the adoption process. He says the pandemic has changed aspects, but not others.
“The judicial and legal steps prior to an adoption are still set in place,” he said. “The same energy and excitement for these adoptions haven’t changed, but just shifted to a virtual environment.”
To help a foster child and learn more about becoming a GAL volunteer, please call 1-866-341-1425, or visit www.guardianadlitem.org.