It's a sad story, the number of abused, neglected and abandoned kids in the system, though it gets a little better when you hear about Mr. Richard, and the girl who made him a heart.
First, reality: Florida has 31,000 children in foster care, in a system that decides what happens to them next. It should go without saying that every one of them needs a voice, an advocate, a grownup to negotiate the terrain, someone there not for the government or the parents, but for the kid, and only for the kid.
Guardians ad litem are the volunteer voices for children, investigating, reporting, going to court to advocate. It is not a job for sissies.
More reality: There aren't enough guardians to give voice to 10,000 of those kids, 993 in Hillsborough and 1,421 in Pinellas and Pasco. And so by brutal necessity, kids are ranked by need. Betsy Smith, executive director of Voices for Children of Tampa Bay, the program's fundraising arm, puts reality like this: "If you're under 5, you get a higher ranking. If you're bruised and burned, you get a higher ranking than a kid who was just born exposed to opiates," or addicted at birth. " 'Just,' right?" she says.
Like I said, not for sissies.
But here is something: Richard Cadogan, a 63-year-old disabled Army vet whose voice carries the accent of his native Trinidad, has come to court for kids for 12 years now, leaning on his cane. He's been Mr. Richard to many of the 60 or so kids he has worked with, full-time, unpaid, visiting their schools, standing up for them in court. Judges say when they turn to him and ask, Cadogan can tell them what's going on with a kid down to the status of a sore throat. "Just a fierce advocate," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan.
A father and grandfather, he has long been involved with kids, coaching soccer, mentoring, but even he can't really say why on this. Maybe because they need him.
He's seen pictures of broken bones and autopsies, heard from mothers willing to do anything in the world for their kids except leave their brutal boyfriends. He's seen babies savagely shaken or suffering drug withdrawal. He had three preteens who could not read because no one made sure they were in school. He had a girl "voted" out of the family. Not for the faint of heart.
But Cadogan will tell you in every case but one — a girl whose story hurts him still — his kids are in permanent homes, adopted or with their families or other relatives, not swallowed by the system. The three now-teens are moving steadily in school. One just got all As and Bs. He knows. He checks.
Adoption days are good days, but seeing the kids later in their ordinary lives, getting medical help or therapy, living somewhere safe, doing fine — "those are great days," he says.
At Christmastime, Mr. Richard went to see a 9-year-old girl placed with relatives. He brought her a karaoke microphone — she loves to sing — and she had something for him, a piece of paper. Thank you, it said, and there was a heart.
Today, the state kicks off a campaign to recruit volunteers to give kids a fighting chance. It takes 10 to 12 hours a month. A volunteer doesn't have to be a rock star of a guardian like Mr. Richard — just a voice for a kid who needs one.
For more information, go to www.guardianadlitem.org or call (813) 272-5110.