Rodney Fontaine advocates for children caught in the system.
He visits their residences to see that they receive proper care and nutrition. He monitors their progress at school. He attends court hearings and speaks on their behalf.
In short, Fontaine fights for the voiceless as a volunteer for the Guardian Ad Litem Program in Hillsborough County.
The program serves children taken from their homes or monitored by the Department of Children and Families.
There are currently more than 3,000 children in the county system, victims of everything from neglect to physical and sexual abuse. Only 820 have a guardian.
Fontaine, who also works as a full-time recruiter for the program, wants to see an increase when training classes for new volunteers begin Jan. 8 in Apollo Beach and Tampa.
"We really need people who have a heart for children to do this," Fontaine said. "Sometimes we are the one constant in these lives. We make a difference."
To become a guardian, interested people must complete an application and interview. In addition to three references, a level two background check and fingerprinting are required.
Adults of all ages and vocations are accepted into the program, which includes the upcoming 30-hour training course. Volunteers must visit the children in their assigned cases at least once a month.
"We have guardians from all walks of life," said Suzanne Parker, circuit director. "We have retired military, schoolteachers and college students. Our volunteers are partnered with a child advocacy coordinator and an attorney. You don't have to be an expert. You just have to care."
Parker said guardians help social workers and judges better understand the cases that come across their desks.
"Kids go through the system regularly but what's missing is someone that has their sole focus on the child and their needs," Parker said. "I think a lot of others try to do that, but there are some many cases and other things involved."
For Fontaine, pastor of New Covenant Community Church in South Tampa, being a guardian is a second calling. He completed his training in August 2012 and currently manages four cases involving children ages 6 weeks to 12 years.
"There is such a great support system," Fontaine said. "You aren't just given a case and then left to do the best you can. There are people to work with you along the way. You never feel alone."
Fontaine recalls meeting one little boy for the first time. The child, then 4, hid from him at first.
"He said, 'Mr., did you come to take me away from my grandma?' " Fontaine said. "I said no and he just he looked at me. The next time I visited him I brought fruit snacks. Now when I go he runs out to see me. He sits and talks to me about his day."
Fontaine's wife, Cindy, recently completed training and will join him on cases. Couples and other pairs are welcome to share cases, Parker said.
Fontaine said the biggest challenge being a guardian is handling the range of emotions.
"Sometimes you feel jubilation, like when children are reunited with their families, and other times you feel angry or upset when the courts don't see things the way you do," he said. "You have to have a little bit of fighter in you to do this."
For more information about becoming a guardian ad litem for Hillsborough County, visit galtampa.org.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]