Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Wanted! in Hernando and Pasco: Guardian ad Litem volunteers

We need an army of volunteers.

That's what I thought recently as I helped judge for the 2014 Hernando County Teacher of the Year.

One candidate after another talked about students who have nobody to check homework or read notes from teachers, nobody to cook for them or make sure they get a decent night's sleep.

They tend to come from struggling families, of course, which made me think of that old euphemism for poor — disadvantaged — and how apt it really is.

What chance do these kids have compared to ones from loving middle-class homes?

Not much of one at all.

The unfairness of it could make you crazy or, hopefully, make you want to help.

And coincidentally, I heard about a perfect opportunity last week from Lynn Sennett, a recruiter for the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program.

She doesn't have an army of volunteers; she barely has a couple of platoons — 85 guardians in Hernando County to cover a caseload of 366 children.

"I don't know what it is about Hernando, but we always have trouble attracting volunteers there," said Sennett, whose judicial circuit also covers Citrus, Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.

In Pasco, which is in another district, "We're in kind of the same situation," said recruiter John Zucker.

Of the roughly 1,000 children in the court's protection, only about half have a guardian ad litem.

I hope this shortage isn't about the character of our community. I hope it's just about a lack of awareness — that not enough people know about the program and how much it helps kids who have been removed from families due to abuse or neglect.

If so, here is how it works:

Guardians are independent advocates for children in court. They have no ties to one particular family member, no financial interest in the cases.

They can view medical and school records. They check on neglectful families to see if houses are clean and if parents are complying with, for example, court-ordered drug abuse counseling.

They visit foster homes and make sure the children's case managers are doing their jobs. They tell the court if the kids need to see a dentist or doctor.

Many of them even meet with teachers and help children with homework.

And when children get shuttled between multiple foster homes and schools, Sennett said, "Our volunteers are often the only constant in their lives."

The program fills gaps in the lives of these children and, it turns out, in the lives of the volunteers.

"It's the most rewarding job I've ever had," said Cheryl McCormick, a veteran guardian from Hernando.

That's no surprise, really. When you realize the depth of the problem, and the opportunity this program offers for us to help address it, I can't imagine why anyone with the time and energy would not want to volunteer.

If you're interested, there's a training program scheduled in Brooksville on March 4. To learn more, call toll-free 1-866-341-1425 or visit the program's website, guardianadlitem.org.

And if you're on the fence about volunteering, think about those old military recruiting posters.

Substitute the stern face of Uncle Sam with the dejected face of an abandoned child.

And replace the word "wants" with "needs."

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