TAMPA — The questions Joe Melchiorre asked himself were: How would he relate to kids? Was he too old? And the deeper questions, the ones that really bothered him: How immersed should he be? How much of himself should he commit?
As he put it, "How do I maintain a balance between emotion and reality?"
Three months after beginning as a guardian ad litem in Hillsborough County, Melchiorre has found easy answers to the first questions. He's been around kids all his life. He has grandchildren. All he has to do is be himself.
He's still wrestling with the other, harder questions.
Around the beginning of the year, the Legislature spread $1.8 million around the state to try to overcome a massive shortage of guardian ad litem volunteers. That happened about the same time Melchiorre was wondering how, besides playing golf, he was going to spend his new retirement.
He's 67. He has raised four children. Before he retired last January, he was vice president of operations at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa.
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Devoting part of his newfound free time to helping children seemed like a good fit. He'd coached baseball and soccer for years. He thought about volunteering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa.
But at the same time, Florida Guardian ad Litem was announcing its recruitment drive. The state had 31,000 children in foster care. For 10,000 of those kids — including 993 in Hillsborough and 1,421 in Pinellas and Pasco — it lacked volunteers to watchdog their wellbeing at home, to monitor their health and progress in school, to speak on their behalf in court.
Melchiorre read a Sue Carlton column in the Tampa Bay Times that profiled Richard Cadogan, a 63-year-old disabled Army vet, who has helped 60 children as a guardian ad litem volunteer for the past 12 years.
By May, Melchiorre had graduated from a training class and two weeks later he had his first case. The case came with two brothers, ages 4 and 7. They were living with their grandmother since their father was arrested on domestic violence charges. The good part was that neither boy had been abused. Both parents loved them.
The boys had no idea what a guardian ad litem was, or what he would want from them.
"What do I say, what do I do?" Melchiorre asked his guardian ad litem supervisor, Amanda Sinicola.
"You're not going to be alone," she told him.
Sinicola made the introductions at Macfarlane Park during the boys' supervised visit with their mother. Melchiorre sat down to meet them at their eye level. Sinicola announced, "This is Mr. Joe. He's going to be looking after you, to make sure you're safe."
The boys looked at him blankly.
Melchiorre did better on the next visit, at the home of their paternal grandmother, where they lived.
He asked the boys if he could see their room.
There, he found their bats and gloves for T-ball. It was an instant connection between an old coach and two aspiring ballplayers. They spent the visit talking about baseball.
"I could see the 7-year-old's eyes light up," Melchiorre said.
He has not been able to ask them the questions he really wants to ask: How are they feeling? How are they dealing with the domestic violence they witnessed and the separation from their parents?
Melchiorre doesn't feel he's earned the right to ask those questions yet.
So he's going by the book. His priority is to observe. Are they physically well? Are they clean? Are they seeing their pediatrician and their dentist? He talked to their schools and found that the older boy needs extra help. One of his first accomplishments was to work with the boys' case manager to arrange tutoring.
At the same time, the state has relaxed the rules for guardian ad litem visits. The rules now allow the volunteers to take children 7 and older in their cars to places outside the home.
Melchiorre sees that as both the opportunity he needs to really break through and a relationship change that might lead to disappointment.
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The hoped-for goal in all such cases is that parents repair the damage in their lives and get their children back. The hoped-for goal is that the children no longer need a guardian ad litem.
By taking the children on outings, Melchiorre worries that he could give them things that their parents couldn't match. It also could enforce their perception of Melchiorre as a kind of surrogate grandpa who will be in their lives forever, when their parents may not even want that. He's not about to hurry them off to Disney World. "It's a fine line," he said, "you don't want to overstep."
Suzanne Parker, guardian ad litem program director, said she's gratified to hear that Melchiorre has concerns. "I love it when we have people who really think how their actions affect others," she said.
She wishes she had more like him. She's trying to find 400 new volunteers.
But she said Melchiorre is overthinking. "Other kids get to go on outings," she said. "We're just doing this so our kids can feel normal."
Melchiorre said he wants to give himself until October to raise the bar. He'll keep observing, keep talking to the boys' teachers and doctors. Then he plans to take the older boy on an outing, somewhere they can talk uninterrupted.
He hopes the boy will feel safe enough to talk about all he and his brother have been through. "I hope by then I've established enough trust."
John Barry can be reached at [email protected]