April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and the members of a local program that advocates for vulnerable children in traumatic situations is looking for volunteers.
The Guardian ad Litem program enlists volunteers to work with the Florida Department of Children and Families, medical providers, the legal system and others to support children with matters they are incapable of dealing with on their own.
Melissa Ross spoke with Circuit Director Melinda Brown and volunteer Steve Berger for more on the program.
“Our sole responsibility is to advocate for the best interest of children who have been alleged to be abused, abandoned or neglected and they are now in the foster care system,” Brown said.
Volunteers are highly involved in independent investigations, interviewing counselors and teachers, working with caseworkers, writing reports and serving as representatives in court. Brown said that the focus is to find these kids permanency.
“All children deserve to be in safe, stable and happy homes,” she said.
Steve Berger became a volunteer with the program after seeing an article on 400 children that were entitled to an advocate who would speak for them in court. When Berger retired, he immediately went through training, got certified, and was hooked after his first case.
“The feeling and satisfaction you get of helping these children survive after going through the trauma, is a most satisfying feeling,” he said.
Berger shared an anecdote of a middle school student who was continually fighting due to being bullied.
Berger used the boy’s confided trust to get him to play on the school basketball team, after which he stopped getting disciplinary referrals for the remainder of the school year.
“I said ‘what’s going on? Why are you fighting all the time?’” Berger said. “He broke down crying, ‘because the kids keep calling me a foster child.’”
Brown emphasized the need for volunteers. With 1,100 children appointed to their program, they have only 405 certified volunteers.
Volunteers must be 21-years-old, pass a level two background check and undergo 30 hours of specialized training before being assigned to a case.
For more information on how to help, call (904) 255-8440 or visit GuardianadLitem.org.