This page contains all published In Print blog posts — containing newspaper articles, news stories and other media about us — sorted chronologically with the newest at the top.

In Print: Tallahassee Democrat Talks To Local Foster Youth

On Monday, June 6, 2016 and Wednesday, June 8, 2016, articles by Ryan Dailey featuring local youth and our program appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.

The first article describes the processes and obstacles of aging out of foster care and the anxiety felt by transitioning youth. It includes quotes from Circuit Director Deborah Moore and mentions our First Beginnings project.

The second article features interviews with five former foster children who each describe their circumstances and the hardships that they experienced.

Both of the articles are presented below in case you missed them. Thank you to Ryan Dailey and the Tallahassee Democrat for sharing our program with their readers.

Aging out means anxiety for foster kids
by Ryan Dailey

Monday, June 6, 2016
Tallahassee Democrat

Just days before the long Memorial Day weekend, representatives from Guardian ad Litem and Capital City Youth Services brought together five young men and women who have either aged out of the foster care system or have gone through bitter legal battles concerning parents' rights.

The two organizations partnered for a number of reasons. GAL, which provides legal services and mentoring to foster children, and CCYS, a youth shelter and outreach program, both were promoting programs that help at-risk youth.

The principal reason for meeting, however, was to highlight some of the often overlooked aspects of what life is like for teens and young adults following their emancipation from the Foster Care system.

"Our program wanted to find a way to fix something that bothered us," said Deborah Moore, a circuit director with GAL. "Youth would leave a foster home or group home, go out on their own and go into an unfurnished apartment and not have a bed, furniture or things to cook with."

Moore spoke about the First Beginnings Project, which was put on by GAL in partnership with volunteers from Killearn United Methodist Church.

"Sometimes they would just sleep on an air mattress in the middle of the floor. We said we have to stop that," Moore said.

Donations from the community and partner organizations have helped the volunteers set up a "store" where the youth can take their pick of household wares and essential items – all, of course, at no cost to them.

"Dressers, student desks, vacuums, irons, ironing boards, dishes, toilet paper, toiletries," Moore said, nearly running out of breath listing the numerous items available. "Anything to make their apartment feel more like a home."

Talking through it

The event was structured like a discussion panel, with each youth getting as much time as needed to share some of the unanticipated roadblocks to successful independent living that they and many of their peers face. The problems go deeper than simply lack of household items.

"The reason for my first eviction was because of mental illnesses I didn't know I had before. I was never in a situation where anyone would question what I was doing or how I would feel," said 20-year-old Taylor Ballard, who has received services and mentoring from Guardian ad Litem.

Ballard has been at her apartment for a year and three months. However, she feels limited in her ability to move elsewhere because of past evictions.

Without a guarantor or family members to provide any financial backing, young adults like Ballard can find themselves in danger of being homeless.

Not having personal identification cards, drivers' licenses, even birth certificates and other important documents that are typically maintained by children's parents is often a burden on young adults who have found themselves on their own without a support system.

Permit and drivers' license

Florida laws have been adjusted in the past few years, because of the advocacy of people like Moore who work with teens and young adults. Fees associated with acquiring a license and permit have been waived for foster teens. They're also eligible for free driving instruction from a professional in some cases, which Moore insists is often necessary.

Erin Bor, a mentor with CCYS' Transitional Living Program, talked about some of the recurring difficulties she hears from teens. Two of the teens at the event, Jawan Moore and Kharizma Bryant-Jackson, both live at the Transitional Living Program house with other 16- to 20-year-olds who are preparing to launch out on their own.

"The biggest issue is the guarantor, because even if you have someone in your life, they may not be willing to do that. Or, they may not have the money or the credit score," Bor said.

Not surprisingly, said Bor, children from unstable homes simply need the same types of motivation as children from tight-knit families.

"Encouragement, singing to people who don't want to wake up in the morning. I'm a personal alarm clock," Bor said.

"It's really things like talking every week and saying 'What are your goals this week? If you have this long-term goal of living on your own, what are the little things you have to do to get there?"

Applying for a job, writing a resume and interviewing are the kind of tasks that Bor the proud "helicopter mom" helps CCYS residents with.

"I'm very fortunate that I get to be that support system for a lot of the kids that have moved out," she said, "but there are so many challenges."

Support organizations that support foster youth

Guardian ad Litem: www.guardianadlitem.org

Capital City Youth Services: www.ccys.org

Children's Home Society: www.chsfl.org

Big Bend Community Based Care: www.bigbendcbc.org

Boys Town of North Florida: www.boystown.org/locations/north-florida

Want to help Children's Home Society with their 50 in 50 Campaign or learn more?

Visit Children's Home Society's Coffee Talk, every Thursday at their office, 1801 Miccosukee Commons Drive. Sessions are held at noon and 5:30 p.m., and are free to attend.

Former foster children recall hardships
by Ryan Dailey

Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Tallahassee Democrat

Kharizma Bryant-Jackson

"Me and my mom, we were not getting along. For me at a young age, that just gave me a view on life that a 6-year-old shouldn't have."

Dealing with the mental stressors at home were not easy to overcome growing up.

"She was trying to help me, but she wasn't able to help me in the way I needed her to," she said of her mother.

Bryant-Jackson tried to escape her home situation.

"I spent most of my time jumping from place to place, I spent my high school years running away," she said. Her mother, looking for a solution, took her to the Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare Behavioral Health Center.

"Me being there helped me, but it also kind of damaged me because I felt I was crazy."

When she first moved into the CCYS transitional program, she said there were some doubts built-in from prior experiences.

"When you've been moved from so many facilities, it's kind of hard for you to transition. My thought was, 'How long am I going to stay here? Is this going to be permanent, or am I just going to be off to the next one."

Bryant-Jackson found support in both peers and adults.

"I needed someone to give me emotional support" Bryant-Jackson said.

When Bryant-Jackson received her GED, she said her mother "was so proud, and welcomed me with open arms." The two continue to build on a positive relationship.

Anna Zhang

"When I turned 18, I had been in about five placements already," said Zhang, a 20-year-old who is now a third-year criminology major and computer information technology minor at Florida A&M.

"My last foster mom, we had the closest bond that I had ever made with a foster parent. Shortly afterward, my dad came home from prison and I moved back in with him."

However, Zhang and her father's "rocky relationship" proved to be problematic living under one roof, and soon she found herself having to move back in with a former Guardian ad Litem mentor.

Finding work and a steady income became the next obstacle to independent living.

"One of my biggest challenges were getting my documents. In foster care, I never had an original birth certificate."

This made it a struggle for Anna to get a job when she reached working age and began to need to provide for herself. She said employers are not always patient when they are interviewing multiple candidates.

"This is the real world, no one's going to be patient about hiring someone for a position."

Zhang said having limited personal connections after aging out of foster care made things more difficult.

"Most children who live with their families have a mom, dad, aunt or uncle they can call on when they have problems or financial trouble," Zhang said. She was not always so fortunate.

Things came to a boil when she found out a roommate had thrown away her FAMU acceptance letter – a physical symbol of her accomplishments to that point. The ensuing dispute resulted in a phone call to police.

Around 11 p.m. the night before she got on the road to drive to her new university, she was put in the back of a police car and taken to jail. She was released on her own recognizance when police found she had no record of ever being in trouble with the law.

"I got home at 4 a.m. and packed the rest of the night. I just thought 'In the morning I'm getting on the road, and that's it.' But all this stemmed from my dad kicking me out."

Anna is set to graduate as a Rattler next fall.

Taylor Ballard

"When I finally got into a home where they actually cared about me, I was 17," Ballard said.

She graduated high school a year early, and despite being urged by her foster parent to stay in town for another year, Ballard decided to strike out on her own and relocate to Orlando.

Being isolated in a new place without many connections was taxing on the recent high school grad. It led to a mental breakdown, followed by a diagnosis of several mental disorders Ballard never knew she had.

Her "meltdown" in Orlando caused her to be evicted from an apartment complex, making it extremely difficult to find housing when she returned to Tallahassee.

"I had an issue trying to find a place to live because many places don't accept your evictions," Ballard said. "Even if I did find somewhere, am I going to be sleeping in the kitchen? Am I going to be sleeping in the bathtub?"

"I got to the point where I'd like to be able to prove to people I really changed, I've matured into an adult," Ballard said. And she did just that.

Ballard has been at her current placement for a year and three months now, never missing a bill or dropping a responsibility. She also benefitted from the Guardian ad Litem's First Beginnings Project.

"When I was moving into my new placement, I wasn't expecting to move in the amount of time in which I did, plus I couldn't afford to furnish my whole house by myself. So it really did save me," Ballard said.

However, even with the relative success she's enjoyed recently, Ballard still feels limited in her ability to move onward and upward to better housing based on her past mistakes.

"I feel like I cannot move anywhere else based on these evictions," she said.

Ballard continues to work at her dream of becoming a professional model.

Jay Schad

"After I aged out (of foster care), I moved into an apartment with just my bed."

Schad purchased a mattress from someone he knew for $20, but it was the only possession he had until his biological father was able to bring some furniture.

Living in Panama City, Schad developed some toxic friendships and was beginning to struggle with motivation to pull himself out of the situation.

"I didn't really have any self-motivation. I don't know if it could've been helped without me trying to help myself. I figured I would have somebody to try and put me in check, but I didn't."

After Schad was arrested last June, he quickly moved to Tallahassee to get away from Panama City and cut ties with questionable connections.

"No one saying, 'Oh, you're doing good and I see your efforts.' So I found out that I had to build my own self-motivation."

Finding a new apartment in Tallahassee and hitting the job hunt were Schad's first priorities. However, finding a guarantor was a serious roadblock.

"I had to depend on things like Craigslist ads to find a place, and it got me to run into some bad people. That got me to where I am now, which is homeless," Schad said.

During his year in Tallahassee, Schad has been in five placements in the last year. None of them have been more stable than a six-month stay.

However, Schad was hired on to a new job last week and is eager to begin making the money necessary to live comfortably on his own.

Jawan Moore

"I never had a happy childhood, from the age of three it was in and out of court with my mom and my dad," said TCC student Jawan Moore.

Moore, though he has never been in the foster care system, was involved in a fierce custody battle as a child, which made his living conditions unstable at times.

For seven years during his childhood, Moore said, he had believed his mother was trying to have him taken away from his dad.

However, Moore found out later that there were different reasons for his family being torn apart. His two older sisters, eager to leave the home before age 18, told the Department of Children and Families that their mother was being physically abusive.

Having to be away from his mother was hard on Moore.

"I was always the twin that wanted to go back to our mom," said Moore, who also has a twin brother.

After finding out the truth, Moore said he began to view his father as a hero. Moore said his father took all of the kids in and took care of them himself, before remarrying and taking in eight more children from his new wife.

"I would fight with the sheriff. I would tell the judge, 'If I can't go with my mom, I'll prove to you I can go to her.'"

A series of attempts to run away from home caused a rift between Moore and his father.

"That was really a traumatic event for me. And when I sat down and thought about it, I realized the things that I did could have been prevented, and handled in a positive way."

Moore has shifted his life to be all about positivity. A star student at TCC, Moore was dressed impeccably in a suit on his way to a school event on the day of the discussion.

A volunteer who is very involved in his church, Destiny Center, Moore is a mentor within the church's flag football program and also teaches children at a local pre-school.

He said that, often times, people see his success and don't realize he has come from such a difficult background.

Receiving help from CCYS counseling, Moore said he learned more effective ways to open up and talk about his emotions. He has since mended his relationship with his father, and the two talk on a regular basis.

"I wanted my dad to be in my life. I called him one day and told him everything I was sorry for. And the one thing he told me is, he was never mad at me. He just wanted me to sit down and talk to him, father to son."

Copyright © 2016 Tallahassee Democrat.

WBZE-FM Radio Program Features Guardian ad Litem Program and CAII Cupcakes and Cookies for Kids

STAR 98.9 — A Better Variety of Music from the 80s, 90s and Today

On Sunday, March 27, 2016, the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program and Child Advocates II, Inc. (CAII) were featured on an entire episode of Talk of Tallahassee, a local public affairs radio program broadcast weekly on STAR 98.9 (WBZE-FM).

Hosted by Tammy Webb of John and Tammy In The Morning on STAR 98.9, the Talk of Tallahassee episode highlights our program and mission while featuring commentary from Volunteer Recruiter Sara Blumenthal and CAII Board Member Kristine Lamont.

For nearly thirty minutes, Webb and company discussed the role of guardians ad litem in the court system, shared stories of how volunteers and community supporters make a difference in the lives of children and spoke about the then-upcoming CAII Cupcakes and Cookies for Kids fundraiser.

The entire episode is a great listen. You can download an MP3 of the audio or listen to the piece on YouTube, also embedded below.

Thank you to WBZE-FM and Tammy Webb for sharing our program with their listeners.

In Print: Two Articles In The Tallahassee Democrat

The Guardian ad Litem program's pinwheel garden shines in honor of Child Abuse Prevention month. Pinwheels represent a happy and safe childhood, things the Guardian ad Litem volunteers advocate for every day.
Photo: Sara Blumenthal

On Monday, April 18, 2016, two articles featuring our program appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.

The articles provide information on how volunteer guardians ad litem support local children and the recent statewide success in recruiting 10,000 volunteers to the program.

Both of the articles are presented below in case you missed them. Thank you to the Tallahassee Democrat for sharing our program with their readers.

GAL volunteers stand up for children
by Sara Blumenthal

Monday, April 18, 2016
Tallahassee Democrat
TLH Section

Each day, parents go above and beyond for their children. Every day Guardian ad Litem volunteers go above and beyond for their children as well.

"I think the most powerful thing we can do is ensure every child has someone who will be there no matter what. Every child should know and feel that they matter," says Krista Killius, a local GAL volunteer child advocate.

Killius, who has been with the GAL program for five years, spends hours copying a book page by page so she can bring it to the GAL youth she is assigned to. The book is a collection of letters from reformed inmates. She gives it to her youth, who has made some poor choices, so he can have hope for a better future.

"He doesn't have family and didn't feel he had choices. I see him every week and send him a letter. It is powerful for him to see that someone sees him as a valuable part of society and values him as a person. It is meaningful for both of us," says Killius.

Killius is one of the more than 300 local and 10,000 statewide GAL volunteer child advocates. Every day she and her fellow volunteers advocate in the community and the courtroom for abused and neglected children.

"It's about being a voice for those who need it the most," says 2nd Judicial Circuit GAL program circuit director Deborah Moore. "Our volunteers ensure our children's interests are heard and their needs are met."

Like all volunteers, GAL volunteers are people who have the need to better their community. GAL volunteers focus on one of the community's most valuable and vulnerable resource, its children. According to national statistics, an alleged incident of child abuse is reported every 34.9 seconds. In Florida, over 30,000 children are currently in the child welfare system.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. All around town, pinwheel gardens are sparkling in the sun to represent what every child deserves — a safe and happy childhood. April is also National Volunteer Appreciation month, which Moore says is a fitting concurrence for the GAL program, which recently surpassed its goal of 10,000 volunteers statewide.

"Our volunteers make a difference by joining with us every day advocating for children who suffered abuse and neglect," says Moore. "We are committed to making their lives better."

GAL volunteers speak up in the courtroom, working to ensure the child has a permanent safe home. They work to make sure the child's educational needs are met and the child has the opportunities to participate in normal activities.

Though GAL volunteers realize the difference they make (a child with a GAL volunteer is half as likely to cycle back into the system and twice as likely to find a forever home), they do not see themselves as extraordinary.

"I don't do anything special. I am just there for my child," says Kathleen Cole, a GAL volunteer who travels regularly to visit her youth who resides in St. Augustine.

Providing that consistent person for the child is a vital part of the GAL program's mission. Having someone they can depend on is something some of the children in care have never had.

"Our kids have someone who cares about them, someone they can trust and depend on, someone they know will fight for them," says Moore. "That makes all the difference."

Betsy Purdum, another GAL volunteer, was there for her youth from the beginning to the end. She made sure that through the process within the child welfare system, the child always had someone in his corner fighting for a permanent safe home, no matter what road blocks occurred.

"We prevailed. He found a family," says Purdum. "He is nurtured and loved, which is what every child deserves."

The results of having someone there are seen every day by the program. It is the child who never thought they would have a real family now calling someone mom. It the child who never had a person encouraging and pushing them now graduating from college. It is the child who never expected much of themselves now having hope and a goal. It is the child who didn't have a parent present now having one after their parent dealt with their addiction.

"Sometimes it's about not giving up. You wouldn't give up on your own child and we shouldn't give up on these children," said GAL volunteer Pat Dallet. The youth who he and his wife Jane are assigned to became homeless after aging out of the child welfare system. They helped him get his life back on track, even helping him get into cosmetology school and buying him his first barber set.

Moore says there are many more children to help. She hopes when people think about volunteering they will think about becoming a child advocate.

"To me, there isn't anything more rewarding then to have the privilege of being that one person to change a child's life," says Moore.

To learn more about the GAL Program or how you can help, please visit www.gal2.org or call 606-1213.

Florida leads nation with GAL volunteers
Special to the Democrat

Monday, April 18, 2016
Tallahassee Democrat
TLH Section

This month, more than 30 community volunteers will participate in the region's 2nd Circuit's Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program training to serve as an abused or neglected child's voice and advocate. These new volunteers will then take an oath before a judge to stand up for a child's best interest and join over 300 Guardian ad Litem advocates serving the Big Bend.

Alan Abramowitz, Florida Guardian ad Litem Executive Director, reports the state's GAL Program has exceeded its goal of 10,000 volunteers who advocate for abused, neglected and abandoned children in Florida's dependency courts. Abramowitz made the announcement in recapping the agency's success during the recently adjourned Florida Legislative Session. Although most states have a GAL Program of some kind, Florida's success in recruiting volunteers sets the record for the nation.

Chester W. Spellman, Volunteer Florida CEO stated that "Volunteer Florida applauds Guardian ad Litem's achievement of engaging 10,000 volunteers! Guardian ad Litem continues to successfully leverage the human capital of volunteers to serve Florida's most vulnerable children. We are proud to support their efforts and value our statewide partnership."

Alan Abramowitz reported that a count of total volunteers at the end of February 2016, reveals that 10,056 Florida GAL citizen volunteers are trained and certified to work with children who are removed from their parents due to safety concerns. Most volunteers represent two or more abused children, visiting them at least once a month, and advising child welfare judges on options for assuring the child's best interests.

Our dedicated volunteers are the heart and soul of the GAL Program," Abramowitz explained. "They speak for vulnerable, innocent children and hold government and private sector agencies accountable for their safety, security and best interests. Our volunteers receive nothing in return but the knowledge that they are making a difference in the lives of children."

Abramowitz explained that anyone age 18 or older can become a volunteer, simply by participating in a local training course and meeting other qualifications.

The local program is able to be the voice for over 96 percent of local youth currently in the child welfare system. Deborah Moore, 2nd Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program Director attributes that level of representation to the continued support of the community and its lawmakers.

"We are thankful for our partners in the Legislature including Florida House Representatives Alan Williams, Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, Halsey Beshears and State Senator Bill Montford. They are effective advocates for our program and the children we serve. We are grateful for their support," said Moore.

Even with GAL's successes to date, there are thousands of children who still need a voice.

To learn more about the Guardian ad Litem Program in our region or to become a volunteer visit www.gal2.org or call 850-606-1213.

In Print: Dinner Divas Support Guardian ad Litem

On Thursday, March 31, 2016, the Apalachicola Times published an article about a recent event held in support of our program, The Dinner Divas Present: A Coastal Cocktail Buffet Fundraiser.

As we reported on Saturday, March 26, 2016, the Dinner Divas raised about $3,200 for local children during the event.

The article is presented below in case you missed it. Thank you to the Times for sharing our program with their readers.

Dinner Divas Support GAL
by Lois Swoboda

Thursday, March 31, 2016
Apalachicola Times
Society Section

On Saturday, March 12, the Dinner Divas staged a gala event to raise money for Franklin County's Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program.

A guardian ad litem is appointed by a court to protect the interests of a child, or incompetency. Typically, the court may appoint either a lawyer, or a special advocate volunteer to serve as guardian ad litem in juvenile, family court, probate and domestic relations matters.

The guardian ad litem is not expected to make diagnostic or therapeutic recommendations but to provide an information base from which to draw resources. As authorized by law the guardian ad litem may advocate for a child at risk.

About 80 people attended the Saturday evening affair held at the lovely home of Henry and Elaine Kozlowsky on Magnolia Bluff.

The Dinner Divas, who specialize in one-off fundraisers for worthy causes, prepared dishes featuring, salmon, local seafood and a stunning array of sweets.

After the party had taken time to raid the buffet and enjoy a glass of their favorite beverage, Sarah Blumenthal, recruiter for the local GAL program, appealed to the crowd to consider volunteering to advocate for a child. Pat O'Connell of St. George Island, a member of the Dinner Divas group, said she and her husband Michael have been GAL volunteers for 14 years.

"It is definitely the most rewarding and interesting charity we have been involved with," O'Connell said.

Blumenthal said GAL volunteers give children "the opportunity to have a more normal life in a very abnormal situation."

"Our children are half as likely to cycle back into the system and twice as likely to be adopted" as other children at risk, Blumenthal told the gathering. "There's a ripple effect. Change the life of one child and you change the world."

Blumenthal described two of the GAL programs that the money raised will help fund.

"Beyond the Basics" seeks to provide children who are neglected or otherwise at risk with experiences most youngsters take for granted. It could be a dress for the prom, sports equipment or the money to go on a field trip.

"First Beginnings" is for kids who are aging out of the system to help them get a first apartment. Blumenthal said GAL maintains a warehouse with furniture and other household goods.

"Every one of our kids has a bed to sleep on. That may not seem like a lot to you but it's a big deal," she said.

Blumenthal said a training program for GAL volunteers will be held in Sopchoppy May 5 through 7. To learn more about GAL, call (850) 606-1213 or visit www.GAL2.org.

Image of Tallahassee Magazine, Page 59

Apalachicola Times

Tallahassee Fire Department Video Introduces Guardian ad Litem Program and Mission To Local First Responders

On Tuesday, March 29, 2016, Captain Mike Bellamy with the Tallahassee Fire Department published the March 2016 episode of TFD INsider, a video series produced for the three-hundred members of their department.

In this special episode, Volunteer Recruiter Sara Blumenthal and Child Advocates II, Inc. (CAII) Board President Omega Wynn join Bellamy to provide an overview of our program, its mission and the ways that people can help. Wynn also promotes CAII Cupcakes and Cookies for Kids, our tasty fundraiser taking place on Saturday, April 16, 2016.

You can watch the video on YouTube, which is also embedded below.

Thank you to Captain Bellamy and the Tallahassee Fire Department for sharing our program with their members!

WFSU-FM Radio Program Features Guardian ad Litem Program and CAII Cupcakes and Cookies for Kids

WFSU Logo

On Thursday, March 24, 2016, the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program and Child Advocates II, Inc. (CAII) were featured on an entire episode of Perspectives, a listener call-in radio program on WFSU 88.9 (WFSU-FM).

Hosted by Tom Flanigan, the episode highlights our program and mission while featuring commentary from Circuit Director Deborah Moore and two program volunteers, CAII Board President Omega Wynn and CAII Board Member Kristine Lamont.

For nearly an hour, Flanigan and company discussed the role of guardians ad litem in the court system, shared stories of how volunteers and community supporters make a difference in the lives of children and gave information on the upcoming CAII Cupcakes and Cookies for Kids fundraiser. Several callers also had the chance to ask questions and have them answered.

With proceeds benefiting our program, CAII Cupcakes and Cookies for Kids is a friendly annual competition for amateur and professional bakers and an opportunity for the public to raise money for our program by sampling the delicious results.

This year's competition is on Saturday, April 16, 2016 and the deadline for contestants to enter is Friday, April 1, 2016* at 11:59 PM ET. Visit gal2.org/cupcake for complete details and to purchase tasting cards, enter the competition or register as a sponsor.

The entire episode is a great listen. You can visit the Perspectives website, download an MP3 of the audio or listen to the piece on YouTube, also embedded below.

Thank you to WFSU-FM and Tom Flanigan for sharing our program with their listeners.

Circuit Director Deborah Moore, CAII Board Member Kristine Lamont, CAII Board President Omega Wynn and Host Tom Flanigan in the WFSU-FM studio for Perspectives on March 24, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida

Photo: WFSU-FM

* Friday, April 3 had been shown erroneously on parts of the event page, but this has been corrected.

In Print: First Beginnings Project

Briahnna Banks taking a lamp from Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Stuart Zirin
Photo: Sara Blumenthal/gal2.org

An article about our First Beginnings project was recently published in the Tallahassee Democrat. The article is presented below in case you missed it.

1st Beginnings program helps foster care youth
by Ellen Piekalkiewicz

Monday, February 22, 2016
Tallahassee Democrat

Deborah Moore, circuit director for the local Guardian ad Litem programs, fields hundreds of calls daily as part of her and her program's mission to advocate and help local abused and neglected children. Some of her favorite calls are when she and the program are able to help a youth going out on their own through the program's 1st Beginning project.

"It is so rewarding being able to be that resource for the youth, being able to make sure they have what they need," said Moore.

1st Beginnings is a project the GAL Program and its nonprofit Child Advocates II established over a year ago to ensure youth in the child welfare system have what they need to make their first place their first home, a mission the community and community leaders have embraced.

"The 1st Beginnings project is an important step in helping foster youth as they transition to adulthood," said Representative Alan Williams. "The needs of foster care youth do not end after the leave the foster care system and projects and programs like this show our commitment as a community to assist the youth in becoming productive, successful and independent adults."

Ensuring the needs of the youth are met is essential to GAL volunteers and staff.

"These kids have been through so much in their short lives. They shouldn't have to struggle to have a bed to sleep on," said Stuart Zirin, a GAL volunteer advocate and member of the program's Independent Living Committee.

For the Guardian ad Litem program, the 1st Beginnings project is just an extension of its core mission — to help, support and advocate for youth who have been abused and neglected. Every day volunteer advocates stand up for children who have gone through so much and may not have a voice of their own. Guardian ad Litem volunteers are speaking for these children in the court to make sure they have a permanent safe home. They speak up in the education system to make sure these children have the tools for success. They speak up in the community to make sure these children have the same opportunities as their peers.

"Every day we make a difference in the life of a child," said Moore. Children who have a GAL volunteer are half as likely to cycle back into the child welfare system and twice as likely to find a forever family.

Recently when Moore got a call about a youth struggling to set up her own apartment, she and the 1st Beginnings team went to went to work to make sure that youth was taken care of.

Briahnna Banks, 20, has been in and out of the child welfare system. She is currently in Postsecondary Education Services and Support program (PESS), which pays for the youth's education and provides a stipend. She was moving into a new apartment for a fresh start and new beginning as she embarked on her studies at Lively College. The only problem is that she had nothing to put in it.

"It is serious when you are on your own. Before, I had nothing to come home to. I was sleeping on the floor. I had nothing to eat out of. I had one fork," said Banks. "I have been going months and months without. It was hard to sleep at night just worrying about how I was going to make it."

Moore immediately reached out to a 1st Beginnings community supporter, the iServe program at Killearn United Methodist Church. The iServe program runs the Sweet Dreams project, which provides bed for youths in the child welfare system.

"Everyone, especially a child, deserves to sleep in their own bed at night," said John Cousins, a member of the iServe program at Killearn United Methodist Church.

For Banks, having her own bed brought her to tears.

"It gave me hope. I am taking these big steps to maturity. This is boosting me up. The things I needed, I now have. I don't have to worry and stress. I can focus on what I need to- school," said Banks.

Moore also set up Banks to come to the 1st Beginnings storage unit where the program has set up a sort of store. The program accepts donated items of new household items and furniture and then youth come and shop for free for what they want.

"I am not from here. Now I can design my place the way I want it to be and make it my home," said Banks who got dishes, chairs, lamps, pictures and other items from the storage area.

Zirin, who spends many a day at the storage unit helping youth shop for their first place, says every time he helps a youth he realizes the importance of the project.

"They are just so grateful. They smile and you know the difference you have made," said Zirin. "They need someone to help them. Even though they are technically adults, they still need to be taken care of."

Moore knows that the 1st Beginnings project will continue to grow and help the young adults as they venture out on their own. The program continues to garner community support and partners. For her and the other GAL volunteers, it is about helping one youth at a time have a better future, like Banks.

"I can't say what this means except to say, thank you. Thank you for coming through for me and other kids like me. It makes a difference like you would not believe," said Banks. "I am blessed."

For more information on the 1st Beginnings project, please call Deborah Moore at 850-606-1213. For more information about the Guardian ad Litem program or how to become an advocate, please visit www.gal2.org or call 850-606-1213.

Ellen Piekalkiewicz is the executive director of United Partners for Human Services. She has more than 25 years of experience working for statewide organizations, local nonprofits and federal agencies.

In Print: Tallahassee Magazine

The Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program is featured in the current January/February 2016 issue of Tallahassee Magazine.

Our program and Circuit Director Deborah Moore are referenced and quoted in the article "Guide and Provide" by Rochelle Koff on pages fifty-nine through sixty-three in the "Life: Here To Help" section. Moreover, the lede photograph for the article, featuring Moore and her youth mentee Brian Williams, is adapted from one of our photos. We are also included among other local youth organizations in the "Youth Services and Support" addendum on page sixty-four of the publication.

A digital version of the magazine is available to read online. The article is also available in plain text under the alternate title "Helping Teens Transition from Foster Care to Adulthood".

Thank you to Tallahassee Magazine for sharing our program with their readers.

Image of Tallahassee Magazine, Page 59

Tallahassee Magazine: Page 59 (Volume 39, Number 1)

In Print: How Guardian ad Litem Changed My Life

An article written by one of our guardian ad litem volunteers was recently published in the Tallahassee Democrat. The article is presented below in case you missed it.

How Guardian ad Litem changed my life
by Sarah Young

Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Tallahassee Democrat, My View

I grew up living inside of the Ronald McDonald Houses of Tampa Bay at All Children's Hospital, where my parents served as the on-site managers.

My mom set the example for who I wanted to become as an adult — someone who fights and advocates for children in times of need. That passion to advocate for children brought me to Guardian ad Litem, where I serve as one of 10,000+ volunteer voices for Florida's abused, abandoned and neglected children.

Guardian ad Litem began in Florida in 1980 as a means to advocate on behalf of Florida's most vulnerable children. As a GAL volunteer, I enter a child's life at what is most likely the worst time in that child's few short years. The child has been so abandoned, neglected or abused by the people who are supposed to love and protect them that the government has to step in.

The child may be removed from their caretakers or supports may be placed around the child and family so the family can eventually be reunified. Sometimes reunification is successful and sometimes it is not. But as a GAL volunteer, I am by that child's side, through the entire process. I am the only person involved in the case whose sole mission is to ensure the child's best interests are communicated to the court and to advocate just for that child.

A child with a GAL volunteer is more likely to find a safe, permanent home; is half as likely to re-enter foster care; will receive more services; spend less time in foster care; is less likely to be bounced from home to home; and will do better in school than those children without a GAL volunteer.

As a GAL, I get to see the inner workings of the Department of Children and Families and the judicial court system, unveiling the cloud of secrecy that so often surrounds child welfare issues. I'm given the opportunity to have a direct and lasting impact on children. In addition, I get to hold government accountable for our society's seemingly forgotten children.

But, for as much impact as I've had as a volunteer, the Guardian ad Litem program has impacted me far more. As a newly-minted faculty member at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, my professional life is forever altered.

I've become increasingly focused on how to use my new role to better the world for vulnerable children, working to create a nonprofit curriculum that will mold the next generation of government and community leaders.

The biggest impact is in my personal life. My husband and I saw that there are so many children in the dependency system who need good parents that we are now licensed adoptive parents, matched to a seven-year-old little boy.

Guardian ad Litem gave me a purpose, a professional focus, my future children, and most important, a way to utilize my passion to fight for children.

For information about Florida Guardian ad Litem, visit www.guardianadlitem.org.

Sarah Young teaches nonprofit management at Florida State University and conducts research on Florida's child welfare system.

Testimony and Update: Senate Weighs Best Interests of the Child In Adoptions

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz wrote an update regarding an adoption bill, for which testimony was given to the Florida Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee. He also shared a related article that ran in newspapers across Florida.

You can read Abramowitz's message and the article, both of which are reproduced below.

Senate Bill 590 Testimony and Update
by Alan Abramowitz

Friday, November 20, 2015

Yesterday was an important day for Florida's abused, neglected and abandoned children and those that care for, advocate and love these children. The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee heard public comment regarding Senate Bill 590 which is being sponsored by Senator Nancy Detert and championed by the Guardian ad Litem Program. The committee passed the bill unanimously. As you may know, the legislation makes a change to the statute governing adoption intervention. The bill allows judges to make decisions regarding adoption intervention using the child's best interest standard as defined in Chapter 39. One senator even queried whether the law could be made retroactive after hearing the stories where children's best interest where not considered.

From Judge Dawson to foster mothers and fathers; those who appeared gave emotional testimony about the negative effects adoption intervention can have on a child who has bonded with a foster family. Stories of children who were placed with their foster parents for three or more years, separated from their "momma and dada," leaving behind friends, extended family, pets, schools and stability to be placed with someone they do not know. The stories told at today's hearing exemplified how important "The Child's Best Hope Act" is and how deeply impacted families are by the inability for judges to consider a child's best interests when making life changing decisions.

You can listen to these moving stories on the Florida Channel [website].

The House bill has been filed by Representative Janet Adkins. The house bill has the same ultimate goals but addresses these issues as additional factors for judges to consider at the time of intervention, including the nature of the offense bringing the child into care, and includes a presumption that child not be moved if a child has been in a placement for an extended time. We appreciate Senator Detert and Representative Adkins for leading this effort for children.

Thank to those who traveled to Tallahassee to advocate for children. The article below written by Margie Menzel appeared in many Florida newspapers this morning.

Senate weighs 'best interests of the child' in adoptions
by Margie Menzel

Thursday, November 19, 2015
The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee — Backed by the sometimes-tearful testimony of foster parents, a state Senate panel Thursday approved a bill that would allow judges to place the best interests of children in adoption cases above the wishes of their biological parents.

The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee unanimously passed a measure by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, that she said would resolve a conflict between two laws dealing with children in dependency cases.

Currently, Detert said, a law requiring judges to rule based on "the best interests of the child" conflicts with a law that allows private adoption agencies to intervene in open adoption cases where parents' rights have not yet been terminated. In such cases, the adoption agency typically names the person that the biological parent prefers to adopt the child.

"This sounds like a good idea," Detert said. "But the current law also permits even a parent who has murdered a spouse, committed egregious acts against their children or who wishes to punish a foster parent that has provided a caring home for their child for a lengthy time to choose who their child should be placed with — without requiring the court to consider what is in the best interest of the child, as it would for any other dependency case."

The bill would create an exception to the part of current law that allows agencies and parents to influence who adopts children. The exception would apply in cases where petitions to terminate parents' rights have been filed and qualified adoptive parents have been identified.

The measure drew widespread support from foster parents and children's advocacy groups.

"Virtually all of the judges who are experienced dependency judges have indicated that this has become a serious problem in our courtrooms," said Judge Daniel Dawson, who handles juvenile cases in the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties.

Dawson said that in every such case he has encountered, "there has been spite on behalf of the parent wanting to remove the child from a relative or a foster parent," or in some cases, parents arranged for a person to adopt a child "that they knew was going to return the child to their custody."

The judge also said he has never seen such an intervention early in a dependency proceeding, when the child is typically placed in a foster home. Rather, he said, motions to intervene come when biological parents are about to lose their parental rights, even if a child has been in a stable foster home for years.

Several foster parents who had lost custody of children urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

Amy Wragg, from the Palm Beach County community of Tequesta, described the son she'd fostered for a year, from the day she picked him up at a neonatal intensive care unit where he'd been for two months, "going through drug withdrawal because of what his mother had done to him."

At that point, Wragg said, the biological mother was happy for the baby to be with her family. He'd bonded with Wragg, her husband and their four other children. "He called us mama and dadda," she said.

But the judge made his ruling based on the law allowing the biological mother to intervene. Wragg and her family were given ten days for the transition, which the baby could not begin to understand.

"He started banging his head on things," she said. "He stopped laughing. These are not children without feelings, just because they cannot verbally express what their desires are."

The current law, she said, allows parents to re-traumatize their children "on a whim."

Allen Walker, who with his wife Eve has been a South Florida foster parent for eight years, described losing a foster son the same way. The boy didn't get to say goodbye to his friends or his extended family when he was forced to leave, Walker said.

"What we've been trying to do as foster parents is heal them from the initial trauma of coming into care, because they lose everything," he said. "No matter what their home life is like, they're losing their families, their friends, their schools, their pets, their toys."

After four years with his family, Walker said, the boy had been healing, and then was placed with someone who'd shown no interest before.

Other speakers noted that the current laws allow biological parents with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues to make adoption decisions rather than judges.

"We want to protect parents' rights," Detert said. "But the Legislature and the courts and most of the people in the audience, our main focus is the protection of the children in the state of Florida and what's best for them, because they don't have anybody other than us."

The Senate bill faces two more committees. The House companion bill, sponsored by Representative Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, has not been heard.