Column: Advocating for children — how Guardian ad Litem changed my life

Published Dec. 18, 2015

When I was about 5 years old I asked my mom, "Why do we have so many medical neighbors?" Her response is still burned into my brain 25 years later. She replied, "Because somebody has to be there to advocate and support children and families in their darkest hours."

I grew up living inside of the Ronald McDonald Houses of Tampa Bay at All Children's Hospital, where my parents served as the on-site managers. My mom, Donna Young, was the executive director throughout most of the organization's history.

My mom set the example for whom I wanted to become as an adult — someone who fights for children in times of need. That passion brought me to Guardian ad Litem about three years ago, where I serve as one of more than 10,000 volunteer voices for Florida's abused, abandoned and neglected children.

Guardian ad Litem began in Florida in 1980 as a means to advocate on behalf of Florida's most vulnerable children. As a volunteer, I enter a child's life at what is most likely the worst time in that child's few short years. The child has been so abandoned, neglected or abused by the people who are supposed to love and protect him or her that the government has to step in to protect the child.

The child may be removed from his or her caretakers, or supports may be placed around the child and family so the family can eventually be reunified. Sometimes reunification is successful; sometimes it's not. But as a Guaridan ad Litem volunteer, I am by that child's side through the entire process, and my sole purpose is to be the voice for that one child. I am the only person involved in the case whose only mission is to ensure the child's best interests are communicated to the court.

Florida's Guardian ad Litem program is a state agency created to support the volunteers. A child with a volunteer is more likely to find a safe, permanent home, is half as likely to re-enter foster care, will receive more services, spend less time in foster care, is less likely to be bounced from home to home, and will do better in school than those children without a GAL volunteer.

Guardian ad Litem volunteers have an influential but seldom recognized role in Florida's child welfare system. Throughout history, government has struggled to engage citizens in ways that are both meaningful and authentic. Some liken citizen participation in bureaucracy to eating spinach: It's great in principle, something we all think we should do more of, but rarely does it make it on the menu.

As a volunteer, I get to see the inner workings of the Department of Children and Families and the judicial system, unveiling the secrecy that so often surrounds child welfare issues. I'm given the opportunity to have a direct and lasting impact on children. In addition, I get to hold government accountable for our society's seemingly forgotten children.

As a newly minted faculty member at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, my professional life has been forever altered by the Guardian ad Litem program.

I've become increasingly focused on how to use my new role to better the world for vulnerable children, working to create a nonprofit curriculum that will mold the next generation of government and community leaders. Yet the biggest impact is in my personal life. My husband and I saw that there are so many children in the dependency system who need good parents that we are now licensed adoptive parents, matched to a 7-year-old little boy.

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Guardian ad Litem gave me a purpose, a professional focus, my future children, and most important, a way to use my passion to fight for children.

This life's work, first instilled in me by witnessing my mom affect countless children and families' lives, has come full circle. I, in turn, am doing what I can to help young lives survive and succeed.

Sarah Young, a Tallahassee resident, teaches nonprofit management at Florida State University and conducts research on Florida's child welfare system. She and her husband have a soon-to-be adoptive son.