Child's Best Interest Attorney Ian Carnahan has departed. We thank Ian for his service and wish him the best with his future endeavors.
Each day a child is a victim of abuse or neglect. April was Child Abuse Prevention Month. During the month, the nation focused on child abuse prevention and the goal for all children to have a safe, healthy nurturing childhood. The Guardian ad Litem Program works every day to achieve that goal.
"Every child deserves a safe, healthy and permanent home. Every child deserves a great childhood," said GAL Program Circuit Director Deborah Moore.
The GAL Program is volunteer-based, and advocates in court and in the community for children who have experienced abuse and neglect.
"We work with our advocacy team to achieve better outcomes for these children and families," said Moore.
According to the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, neglect is responsible for more than 61 percent of children who are removed from their parent's care and placed in the child welfare system. A major cause of neglect is parental substance abuse issues. More and more children are coming into the child welfare system. Many of them are victims of the drug and opioid epidemic.
"It isn't about a desire to care for their children. Substance abuse issues take away these parents' ability to care for their children," says Child Advocacy Manager Supervisor Tammy Harris. "They are unable to provide basic needs for their children, from food to personal care to supervision."
Day after day, Harris sees families in crisis due to substance abuse. She sees kids come into the child welfare system who have suffered because their parents have failed to care for them. Some are malnourished. Some do not have clean clothes. Some are found all alone.
"Unfortunately by the time we see these children and families, trauma has already occurred. Our team does its best to ensure the children do not experience additional trauma," said Harris.
The team does this by working with child welfare partners to ensure resources are provided to the family to treat the substance abuse issues and encourage the parents to get the help they need.
"I want our families to heal. I want our parents to be able to deal with their issues and reunify with their children," said volunteer advocate Maria Augustyniak. "If by providing support I can help that happen, then what could be a better use of my time?"
The GAL advocacy team, which includes a volunteer advocate, Child Advocate Manager and Child Best Interest Attorney, makes sure these children receive the services they need to mitigate the trauma they have experienced. Child abuse and neglect affect physical, intellectual and social development.
The children are also at a higher risk of developing substance abuse issues themselves or becoming re-victimized as adults.
"It's about helping one child at a time and ensuring they have the chance of a brighter future," said Augustyniak.
The GAL Program, thanks to its nonprofit Guardian ad Litem Foundation 2nd Circuit, is able to provide for the needs of the children and families it serves. Harris says many days will find her shopping for clothes and diapers.
"These children come in sometimes with nothing," said Harris. "We do our best to help meet their needs."
The ultimate goal is to help these children and families before trauma occurs. The GAL Program supports Prevent Child Abuse Florida and Child Abuse Prevention Month. Both stress the importance of recognizing warning signs and providing front end support and resources.
"The more resources and interventions we provide theses families before abuse or neglect occurs, the better. My wish is no child ever suffers abuse or neglect," said Moore.
Unfortunately, Moore realizes with the drug crisis more and more children will be victims of abuse and neglect. In the last two years, the number of children entering the child welfare system in Florida has increased by 14 percent. The local circuit has also seen increase in children coming into service.
Moore says the program and its trained volunteer advocates, who are community members who have decided to get involved and make a difference, will continue to be there for these children and families.
"We will not stop," said Moore. "Our volunteer advocates and our team will continue to advocate and work so every child can have a positive childhood and therefore a brighter future."
To learn more on how you can get involved, please visit www.gal2.org.
Sara Urban is the Volunteer Recruiter for the 2nd Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program.