Guardian ad Litem Program transforms lives
The Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program is featured on the front page of today's Tallahassee Democrat.
The column by staff writer Sharon Kant-Rauch features volunteer guardian ad litem Karima Anderson, Dewayne Knight—a recipient of Anderson's public service and advocacy—and Circuit Director Deborah Moore.
Purchase a copy of the Tallahassee Democrat today at your local retailer to read the article and see the photographs, as well as support the newspaper.
By Sharon Kant-Rauch
Monday, November 21, 2011
More volunteers are being sought
When Dewayne Knight was 15, he was angry. He had been in foster care for six years and had watched numerous case workers come and go. His grades were failing. He skipped school all the time. If someone said the wrong thing, he'd explode.
So when he found out the court had appointed him a guardian ad litem — an advocate who would look out for his interests — he was hostile. He said he didn't want one.
But Karima Anderson was undeterred. She had wanted to be a guardian since she was 17. Now at 21 — the legal age to become a volunteer advocate — she was ready for her first case.
It didn't matter that Dewayne towered over her by a foot and hardly said a word when they first met. What she saw was a teddy bear, albeit a big one.
Fast forward three years.
Knight is 18 and talks up a storm. He's about to complete his GED and has plans to go to Tallahassee Community College. He just heard that he's been hired at a fast-food restaurant, a job he has pursued for months.
Sitting next to Anderson at the Guardian ad Litem office on Thomasville Road, Knight credits Anderson with sticking with him over the years.
"We have a good bond," he said, glancing over at her and breaking into an infectious grin. "I could always talk to her about what was going on. I know she'll never give up on me."
Anderson blushes and beams. She feels like a proud mama.
Time well spent
Deborah Moore, director of the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program, hopes more people in the Big Bend will become a guardian.
Currently about 280 volunteers are part of the program, which includes Leon and five surrounding counties. But to serve the 508 children in the system, she needs at least 31 more volunteers.
Trainings will be held in December and January.
"At any given time, about 50 children do not have an advocate," Moore said. "Having 311 volunteers would put me in a better position to serve them all."
Most of the children in the program have been removed from their home because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. They can range in age from newborns to 19, but the average age is between 7 and 9, Moore said.
Guardians initially meet with the child and parents to gather information about the case. Guardians continue to meet with the child every month until the case is resolved. Most cases last about a year.
Guardians attend court hearings and, along with an attorney and volunteer supervisor, make recommendations to the judge that are in the best interests of the child. Issues might include increased visitation by the parents or determining if the child is ready to go home.
Guardians also act as liaisons with the schools, helping children to get tutoring or counseling. The child is free to call the guardian when needed. Moore said most guardians spend between four and six hours a month on a case.
Research has shown that this time is well spent.
According to the National CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate Association), children who have a guardian are half as likely to go into foster care as those who do not have an advocate. If they do go into foster care, they get out eight months earlier than those without a guardian.
Children with a guardian also are more likely to do better in school, and are less likely to be expelled or to have poor conduct.
Volunteer guardians appear to be the best people to be child advocates.
CASA reports show volunteers "spend significantly more time with the child than a paid guardian ad litem."
To become a guardian, a volunteer must fill out an application and then have an interview with Moore. If Moore feels the person is a good match for the program, the volunteer goes through a 30-hour training process.
Moore said when she pre-screens potential volunteers "98.9 percent" of them say they're interested in becoming a volunteer because they love children.
"That," Moore said, "is a wonderful foundation to build on."
Building a relationship
As Knight and Anderson sat in the Guardian ad Litem office, they reminisced about the past three years.
"Remember the first time I got you tutoring help?" Anderson asked.
Knight's hands immediately flew to cover his face as he shook his head from side to side.
"Oh my God," he said, laughing. "The first time she asked me, 'Do you want a tutor?' I said 'No!' "
What did he need a tutor for? He was skipping school more than he was attending.
Anderson persisted. She talked with the principal and assistant principal. One day after school, they insisted he stay on campus.
What was wrong? Was he in trouble?
That wasn't the case, both principals said. They just wanted him to hang around.
Then the tutor showed up.
Knight doesn't remember much about the first visit. But when the tutor came again, he avoided her. Finally on the third visit, he settled down.
Knight laughs about it now because just recently he asked for a tutor. He's been working on his GED at Lively Technical Center on Appleyard Drive and missed passing the math portion by a few points.
Next time around, he wants to pass it.
"I was shocked when he asked," Anderson said. "But I was also really proud."
Moore said guardians are often the most consistent adult in a child's life. Knight agrees. He said he always knew he could reach Anderson and that she'd call him back by the next day. A case worker might take days to return a call.
"When I call Miss Karima, I know she'll get on it," he said.
Anderson signed him up for anger-management classes and visited him regularly at the group home where he was living. Sometimes she'd help with something as little as making sure he got special soap because he has sensitive skin.
Last Christmas, through the Guardian ad Litem program, she gave him a book called "The Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," a biography of a famous surgeon best known for separating a pair of Siamese twins in 1987.
"I do not read," Knight said. "But one night I started the first page and I decided, 'I'm going to read the entire book.'"
And he did.
Part of the reason was that Carson's background was similar to his. Carson's mother dropped out of school and got married when she was a teenager. Carson didn't do well in school and had a violent temper.
But eventually, with the help of his mother, his grades improved dramatically and he eventually got accepted to Yale University.
"He had the same lifestyle that I had," Knight said. "We were in the same category."
He said one day he hopes to become a counselor or an actor. Anderson tells him he can do it.
Ever since Anderson became Knight's guardian, she also has made a ritual of taking him out to dinner on his birthday. Recently, when he turned 18, she took him to the Red Lobster.
"That was the first time I had ever been there," he said.
He told her at dinner he wanted to help other kids in foster care.
"That floored me," she said. "But it was the greatest thing to hear. So rewarding."
Anderson admits she's a busy person. She's working on a master's degree in social work at Florida State University. She works full time at an Early Head Start program and does some promotional marketing on the side. But she finds the time to be an advocate.
"I feel this population of children is so important that I've never been able to back out," she said.
Today, even though Knight is an adult living with his sister, Anderson still keeps in touch.
They do this thing together, he said. He'll be talking about something and she'll break into a grin. That will make him smile. Then she smiles some more.
Their joy flip-flops back and forth.
How to Volunteer
To learn more about becoming a guardian ad litem, visit www.guardianadlitem2.org or call 606-1216. Applications are available online.
When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Dec. 3; 5:30-9 p.m. Dec. 5 and 7.
When: 5:30-9 p.m. Jan. 18, 19, 23, 25, 26 and 30.
All guardians must be 21 years old, pass a criminal background check and complete the 30-hour training.
Community Hands is a Tallahassee Democrat initiative to help link needs in the community with the people who can provide resources and hands-on work. Projects must overseen by a nonprofit agency. To be considered, email Sharon Kant-Rauch at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 671-6539.
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