As a morning rain lashes the windows of the Hillsborough County courthouse, people crowd the lobby, babies whimpering, children playing, adults who had children together now sitting a few seats and a million miles apart. Another day in juvenile dependency court begins.
This is a tough place, one that takes in kids who have been abused, neglected and abandoned and tries to figure out what's best for them.
Is a parent finally ready and able to get them back? A relative willing and capable? Adoption? Foster care? Sorting the lives of these children is not for the faint of heart.
And now, across Florida, courtrooms like this may lose a voice for thousands of those kids.
Sitting before Circuit Judge Debra Behnke this morning are lawyers for the state, lawyers for the parents. Then there are the lawyers and volunteers for the Guardian ad Litem program, whose job is solely to look out for what's best for the child — not the parents, the system, the budget — just the child.
Statewide, Guardian ad Litem lawyers and staff work with some 7,000 volunteers who go through 30 hours of training and then take on cases. Judges will tell you guardians know if a kid is making his allergy appointments or on schedule for his shots, if there are roaches in the house where he is staying, if he is making decent grades.
"They provide so much more information than the Department of Children and Families can because of the volume of cases DCF has to work," Behnke says. "DCF sometimes has to focus more on the parents, and the child can get lost in the process."
Says fellow judge Tracy Sheehan: "When I have a docket, I'm so glad to see the guardian at the end of the table — it's the real hands-on, boots-on-the-street involvement that we could not function without."
But these days, nothing is safe from the budget scalpel, and in Tallahassee there is talk of slashing the Guardian ad Litem by $7.6-million, or 23 percent. (Good thing they didn't do it a couple of weeks ago, when the governor declared March Guardian ad Litem Month.)
In practical terms? "A 23 percent cut, I would have to tell approximately 5,700 children that their guardian would have to go away," says Theresa Flury, executive director of the statewide program.
She tells me anecdotes that are both ordinary and extraordinary: a guardian who has followed a boy's case four years, driving from city to city to keep an eye on things wherever the boy was placed, never putting in for gas money and embarrassed when she told the story. "It was just, 'Of course, that's what I do. He's mine. I'm his guardian.' "
In Behnke's court we hear of a father who isn't here because he's in jail, an adoption on track, a spirited commentary on whether foster care is "the devil everybody says it is."
Then a mother who has passed her drug screenings and taken her parenting classes gets a step closer to getting her children back. When her hearing is over, she sits with a small smile. The guardian leans over to squeeze her shoulders, the courtroom version of a hug.
Good legislators are working to try to lessen the amount of the cut, to soften the blow for children who end up in courtrooms like this for nothing they did.
But how do you pick which kids get a voice, and which won't?