Guardian ad litem connects with Pasco foster kids through shared pasts

Guardian ad litem volunteer Pat Smith, 69, has helped dozens of children. She was adopted herself shortly before age 11.
Guardian ad litem volunteer Pat Smith, 69, has helped dozens of children. She was adopted herself shortly before age 11.
Published July 12, 2013

The little girl pressed her nose against the window, hiding between a curtain and the glass, waiting for her mother.

For five years, she was an abandoned child.

Pat Smith was dropped off with her siblings at a Salvation Army mission in Michigan, then shuffled in and out of foster care and an orphanage until she was adopted just before her 11th birthday. A few years later, she moved to Florida with her adoptive mother.

Now 69 and living in Homosassa, Smith provides some comfort for lost children. Since 2007, she has volunteered as a guardian ad litem for about 60 Pasco County kids set adrift in Florida's dependency system.

She was named guardian of the year for Pasco and Pinellas counties in 2011. At one point, she volunteered almost 40 hours each week. She is a guardian for four children right now.

State volunteers like Smith advocate for children who have been removed from their families for their safety. Smith said the most common scenario she sees in Pasco is drug abuse.

The kids feel that, she said. They think they're unimportant, unworthy or even at fault. That's where Smith comes in. She's required by the state to visit her case children at least once every 30 days in person and communicate with families, foster families, judges and lawyers.

Some children don't want to talk at first, she said, and some are angry. But they all respond when someone cares about them.

She's a constant in young lives that have little stability. She lets them play Angry Birds and asks how they feel. She asks whether they need new shoes, what their classmates are wearing.

She tells judges what the children need and want, and she tells the children that judges want to know.

She remembers feeling alone, too.

"Nobody ever came back twice and no one ever cared what you thought," she said.

Ann Miles, who said she has fostered more than 20 children, has known Smith for several years through the dependency system. Smith has brought Miles' foster children Christmas presents, always with the instructions to say they're from Santa Claus.

"She is absolutely wonderful as wonderful can be," Miles said.

When children are taken from their families and placed into the dependency system, state workers try to find other relatives to care for them. Otherwise they are assigned foster families.

Inspectors and guardians like Smith check the home out. Safety and stability are priorities.

The hardest part, Smith said, is putting a safe home above her own ideas of how children should live and be cared for. Guardians-in-training are tested on this. They receive a cartoon picture of a home, and they have to look past a woman smoking a cigarette and a cluttered room to find positives like a bowl of fruit and a man handing lunch to a child.

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Smith's relationships with foster children end in ways that can seem unusual, even cold. When the children are back in a permanent home and their cases are closed, Smith exits.

They lose touch, on purpose.

The children aren't supposed to rely on their guardians, Smith said. The goal for them is permanency. When that is established, she moves on.

But the chapters in between can take years, and that turmoil can build on leftover issues from childhood. Some of the children are angry and act out. Many of them think family problems are their fault.

"It's child logic, I guess," she mused. She can sympathize, and she can show the children that she hears them.

"She knows when to listen and when to shut up," said Smith's older sister, Sharon Butterfield. The two were close as children, but Butterfield, of Rock Island, Ill., was adopted years before Smith was. Still, they kept in touch and are close again. They even got to visit their birth mother and tell her they turned out fine.

Butterfield said Smith's foster care experiences make her the ideal guardian. The program is also helping Smith herself, she said.

Smith first looked into the guardian program after her husband and business partner died in a motorcycle accident. Her doctor suggested it, and she was excited as soon as she started researching.

She remarried a few months ago and has no plans to scale back on volunteering. She also works part time for the guardian system, making first visits and recommending a course of action.

Butterfield said it has given her sister a new purpose and a new confidence.

Even into her 50s, Smith tried to fix other people's problems. She was looking for validation, she said, but now she doesn't need it.

As a guardian ad litem, Smith can't fix everything for her case children. But she can show them that even if they feel broken now, they have value.