BY AMY SCHERZER
Times Staff Writer
For a while, it seemed like Judy and Dave Dibbs couldn't open a newspaper without reading about child abuse. Horrific stories of shaken babies, bruises, burns and filthy homes broke their hearts, but what could they do?
They decided to become Guardians ad Litem, volunteers appointed by the court system to speak on behalf of the 4,500 children in foster care in Hillsborough County.
As guardians, the Dibbses gather police reports, talk to teachers, visit day care centers and call physicians to make recommendations that will help secure a safe, stable and permanent situation for the children they represent.
Last month, headlines reported of a 2-year-old former Pinellas County foster child who disappeared for nine months with her mother and later was found in Wisconsin. The story reinforced the commitment the couple made to the Guardian ad Litem program five years ago
"It wouldn't have happened if she had a guardian,'' said Dave, 66.
"No. 1 rule, face-to-face with the child at least once a month," added Judy, 64.
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Volunteering with foster children is only the latest step in what has been a fulfilling life. The Dibbses live in New Suburb Beautiful and are the parents of adult sons, Elliot and Scott, and four grandchildren. Dave retired after 28 years as a Motorola sales executive and now manages the family's commercial property. Judy retired in 1999 as a human resources/training director for a wireless communication company in Chicago.
When the couple initially became guardians, Judy was the one juggling four or five cases, from newborns to teenagers. Dave prefers babies up to age 8, one case at a time. After their initial investigation, guardians devote between four and six hours a month, per case.
"Sometimes a case involves several siblings placed in different locations scattered throughout the county,'' Judy said.
Their caseloads reversed in September 2004, with Judy's recurrence of breast cancer, stage 4. Now Dave is up to four cases while Judy juggles one and many doctors appointments.
Hillsborough's 340 guardians, plus staff advocates, represent about 3,100 children, Dave said, leaving more than 1,000 without representation. That shortage motivated him to chair the volunteer recruitment committee.
His goal: 60 new guardians by the end of the year.
Requirements: compassion and objectivity; an inquisitive and assertive personality.
Compensation: the satisfaction of changing a child's life.
Recruiting guardians has led to training them. Last year, the Dibbses began teaching one of the 30-hour certification classes, the first volunteers to do so.
"I should probably get them an office,'' said regional director Charles Nelson. "Every time I turn around they're here.''
Nelson recognized Dave's leadership with the annual Director's Award at a guardian appreciation banquet in May. Judy was honored for her meticulous casework documentation. Last year, Dave received the Magistrates' Award and before that, the 2005 Guardian ad Litem of the Year.
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The clock starts ticking the minute an abused or neglected child is removed from a caretaker and taken to a foster home, shelter or acceptable relative or friend. The case must be heard within 24 hours.
"There is a judge assigned to work 365 days a year,'' Judy said. "Christmas, too.''
Depending on the severity of the situation, the judge will appoint a guardian to make decisions for the child until the case is resolved, often a year or more.
"Reunification is always the primary goal,'' Judy said.
The judge listens to the attorney and the state, Dave said, "but most often they go with the guardian's opinion.''
He recalled a recent visit to a little girl, one of the quarterly unannounced visits they must make. Sitting on the floor with crayons and coloring books, Dave asked if she wanted to talk privately.
"You get a sense if something isn't quite right,'' he said.
They walked to the other end of the room.
"You never want to be completely alone with them, but it was nothing. She just wanted some undivided attention.''
The child may have been reaching out to the only consistent person in her life, he said.
"The homes change, caseworkers change, attorneys change, but we see them every month. Sometimes that's more than their parents,'' Judy said.
Anger, depression and mental health issues are expected with foster children. Much as the Dibbses might want to, they can't take them to Busch Gardens or have them over for a swim.
"It's not Big Brothers Big Sisters. We're not mentors, but you can't help but bond with them,'' Dave said.
Happens all the time, Judy added. Success stories almost make her forget her weekly chemo treatments.
"I went to court three times in one week to testify for a newborn, and the foster parents were able to adopt him,'' she said, beaming.
"You might not always get the outcome you want, but you chip away at the little things.''
When Dave gets frustrated, he thinks back to Christmas 2003 when he visited one of his young charges.
"I gave her a little note pad and she went off in a corner. She came back and handed me a piece of paper that said: Dear Mr. Dave, I love you. I wish you were my grandpa.''
Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.
Dave and Judy Dibbs
Married: 42 years
Favorite escape: British Virgin Islands on chartered sailboat with friends. She's the chef; he's the senior deck hand.
Newest member of the family: Evita, Siamese kitty
Hobbies: golf, gardening, needlepoint.
How to help
If you are 19 or older, have common sense, good judgment and a heart, you could be a Guardian ad Litem. Training sessions are monthly and online. The next starts Aug. 6. For information, call (813) 272-5110, visit www.vfcgal.org or e-mail Tami.Dodd@gal.fl.gov.