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Volunteers guard the system's young

Guardians ad litem stand up in court for children who have nothing else to protect them, officials say.

In a child welfare system clogged with cases, they are the putty that fills the cracks.

Teens have confided in them, whispering confessions of abuse.

Parents have thanked them, sober after years of drugs and booze.

Judges have looked to them, asking what is best for a child.

They are guardians ad litem. They occupy a little-known position, but one that has the potential to make a world of difference in a young person's life, officials say. And Hernando County is in need of more such volunteers.

"We have a terrible shortage," said Laurie Dietrich, case coordinator for Hernando's Guardian Ad Litem Program. "We're in desperate need."

A guardian ad litem is a person who represents children once they enter the state's welfare system and court proceedings begin. Ad litem is a Latin phrase meaning "for the lawsuit."

The guardian conveys a child's wishes to the judge _ for example, telling the court whether an abused child wants to return to his or her parents _ and also makes a recommendation as to what is in the child's best interest. A child's desire and what's best for the child are not always the same.

Dietrich said the importance of the guardian cannot be overstated. Parents and state officials have lawyers. The child does not.

"There is nobody who speaks for the child. So that's where we come in," she said.

Hernando County has 40 volunteer guardians who carry one to five cases each. They do not need legal experience, just a big heart and common sense, Dietrich said. Some volunteers spend several hours a month; others have made a life of volunteering.

Dietrich said that if the county had 100 volunteers, she still would have unassigned cases.

The shortage is so bad, she said, that only the most high-profile cases _ parents who have nearly beaten their children to death, youngsters left in unimaginable filth, teens scared from years of sexual abuse at the hands of a relative _ are being assigned to workers.

The cases of the rest of the children sit in a pile of paperwork on her desk, waiting.

The danger, officials say, is that guardians are the ones who do what other social workers and law enforcement personnel do not have the time to do. They visit the home every month to check on conditions _ whether a parent is complying with state requirements, such as staying sober and keeping the house clean. They earn children's trust, watching for bruises and listening for signs of trouble long after the initial investigation by the state Department of Children and Families.

It is the little things, said guardian Nanette Holt, that make the difference, and that are so gratifying.

"To see these kids get a chance at a normal life, to know they trust me enough to turn to me for help, I can't tell you how rewarding that is," said the 32-year-old Spring Hill resident, who juggles a new baby and her job as a magazine journalist with her volunteering. "It's wonderful."

Being a guardian isn't easy, any one of them will tell you. Some of the things they see are downright heartbreaking. But those who become guardians are inspired by hardship and want to help when no one else will.

Some of the gestures they make are personal. Holt recalls two boys she helped who were removed from their parents' care after one was almost killed from abuse. Officials found them foster parents. Holt, knowing that someday the boys would want to know something about their past, made them a scrapbook full of baby pictures she collected from relatives.

"When they are 18, they will have something to look back on," she said. "It's a small thing that no one else would think of _ something no one would have the time to do. But it has an amazing effect on them to know that someone cares enough to do that."

Another time, two boys were in the foster care system, moving from one home to another. For Christmas, the brothers had received their first and only toys from a charity. After they moved to a new home, their old foster parents wanted to keep the toys to give to their next foster children. Holt fought to get the toys back to the boys.

"They were the only belongings they ever had," she said. "To take that away, it can be pretty devastating. We try to help them heal . . . to give them something familiar."

Other more common things guardians fight to get children are counseling, medical treatment and tutoring. Often, these are requested by state officials, but the requests get delayed or lost in red tape.

Grachia Jacobson, 58, a guardian who was given a case that involved children who had been inadequately home-schooled, was faced with making up for years of lost time. So the retired Spring Hill resident went after funding, found a teacher willing to reduce her rate for tutoring and got the children the help they needed.

"It's pretty exciting when a child you meet at age 9 can't write a complete sentence, and six months later they're standing up in class reading," Jacobson said. "You sit in a crowd, and this child who had no confidence at all is standing in a pageant, smiling ear to ear, and she waves to you. It's the best-worst volunteer job I've ever had."

Guardians sometimes end up helping parents as well as the child. In many cases, a child remains in the home while a parent completes requirements set by the state, such as substance-abuse counseling or parenting classes.

"You go through these steps, and everyone improves. With a lot of these parents, they really do love their children, and a light bulb goes on," Jacobson said. "They are just inexperienced, and they don't know, for example, to put a bottle in the refrigerator instead of leaving it on the couch."

Jacobson said she has seen some mothers and fathers undergo a complete transformation with counseling.

"There was a mother of a teenager who went to anger management. She learned about the violence in her own childhood and realized she was repeating the same patterns," Jacobson said. "She was able to talk to her kids and explain. And they were all able to communicate their anger (verbally), rather than have it go into a rage."

The best thing about their job, guardians say, also is what makes it so challenging. A guardian is able to make such an obvious, fundamental _ sometimes life-changing _ difference. As a result, volunteers often wish they could do even more.

"This is a special kind of volunteer position. This isn't a position where you come in and lick envelopes and go home," Dietrich said. "Mentally, they take these kids home with them. But when a case comes to closure, and the child is finally (safe or) adopted out, that is just one of the most wonderful things in the world."