TAMPA — Pat Provance tapped on a screen porch lined with black metal bars.
She ran a hand over her close-cropped gray hair, smoothed her tennis skirt. Provance peered in a dark living room, saw bodies sprawled on couches; she heard the sound of a car crash blaring on TV.
"I wonder if they forgot," she whispered.
Just then, a boy emerged from the darkness. He had brown skin and wavy black hair, an easygoing smile.
Provance, 69, hugged him. "How are you doing, Alex?"
Alex's father, was watching by the door. He asked, "How long will you be?"
Provance wasn't sure. She needed time alone with the boy. As his guardian ad litem, she was supposed to protect him. The court was counting on her. She needed to find out where the 12-year-old wanted to live: With his mother? Father? Or someone else?
"Maybe an hour-and-a-half?" she said.
Then she put her arm around the boy's shoulders and led him to her silver SUV.
Not long ago, this outing wouldn't have been possible. A Florida Supreme Court order had prevented guardians from transporting children, making it difficult for them to have private and candid conversations about the child's welfare.
• • •
Alex had been through a lot. His mother had a nervous breakdown, there was no electricity in the home. Alex had missed the first half of sixth grade, caring for his two younger siblings, one of them still in diapers.
Back in February, when the Provances first met Alex, they sat down in the formal living room of Alex' foster home. Alex was polite but quiet. The Provances, grandparents who had become guardians ad litem to feel useful again, were just two more in a series of adults who popped in and out of his life.
On July 1, a new law went into effect allowing guardian ad litems to transport children. After the law changed, the Provances drove from their retirement home in the Villages in Sumter County and picked up Alex for the first time. They took him to the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
Alex had warmed to them over time, but once they were alone he opened up like never before. He told them things so personal they can't reveal them.
Alex and his siblings were at the center of a number of competing interests. His mother wanted him and his half-siblings back. His father wanted him, too, but he hadn't seen him much since he was a toddler. An aunt had taken custody of his siblings. She wanted Alex, but she'd lost her job.
A judge had placed Alex with his father for the summer, which Alex seemed okay with. A hearing was coming up in two weeks. It was time to find out where Alex wanted to go once school started.
• • •
This week, they sat at a table in a corner of the Columbia Restaurant and ordered Cuban sandwiches and gazpacho.
"So what's new?" Provance asked. "Anything exciting?"
Alex looked up thoughtfully. He's been swimming at the beach a lot with his aunt.
"You still staying up till the wee hours?" Provance asked.
Alex took a big bite out of his bread. "Yea, last night I stayed up till 5." He grinned.
"How about the math tutoring?" she asked. "Is that happening?"
He shook his head. Though he'd entered sixth grade in February, he'd gotten B's, C's and a D in Math. They'd talked in court about getting him help before he entered the seventh grade.
"Your dad said hopefully you would have Internet service. Has that happened yet?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"That will make it hard for school," she said.
A waiter delivered their sandwiches and they ate in silence.
Provance looked at the young boy. She had grown attached to him. She wanted the best for him, to see him do well in school and have a normal childhood. How would Alex succeed at school without tutoring or the Internet or a good bedtime regimen?
"Are you ever left alone?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said.
"Who all stays there now?" Provance asked. "It looked pretty crowded."
Alex ticked off people on his fingers. It was his great-grandma's house. His uncle, his aunt, another aunt, his father, his cousins. Some were just visiting.
"You have a hearing in two weeks," she said.
"The last one?" he asked hopefully.
"Not the last one, but this one determines where you go for a while."
She kept her eyes on him.
"Your mom is home now, but she has not finished her homework," Provance said. "So it's between your aunt and your dad here."
Provance kept a smile on her face. She didn't want to worry him.
"Do you want to be with your aunt?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, shyly. He wanted to be with his siblings.
Provance nodded. She would tell the judge Alex's wishes. They paid their bill and got back in the car.
Provance looked back at him. He was so gentle and sweet.
"You need to get in a school-time bed schedule," she said.
Next time, she added, they would take him to Adventure Island. He grinned. "Can I bring someone?" he asked.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or [email protected]