Guardian ad Litem Rising to the Occasion
By Alexsa Leto, Guardian ad Litem Director for the 16th Judicial Circuit
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and this one is unlike any other. COVID-19 and social distancing present challenges we have never faced. Yet, professionals and volunteers in the child protection system are working harder than ever to keep children safe.
The Guardian ad Litem Program for the 16th Judicial Circuit serves Monroe County and the Florida Keys. When an abused or neglected child comes into the dependency system, a judge appoints a certified volunteer to represent the child in court. That volunteer becomes an expert on the child, serving as the judge’s eyes and ears, so the court can make decisions about the child’s best interests. Our staff attorneys and Child Advocate Managers work with the volunteers as a team.
For now, as directed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, we’re doing most of this remotely by staying connected with the children we represent by video or phone.
I’m encouraged that despite the challenges, the Guardian ad Litem Program continues to fulfill its statutory mandate to represent the children. We work closely with our partners: the Department of Children and Families; the Executive Office of the Governor; Monroe County; Prevent Child Abuse Florida; our local community based care agency Wesley House Family Services; and our nonprofit arm Voices for Florida Keys Children, Inc., supporting the Monroe County Guardian ad Litem Program and the children we serve.
Right now, due to COVID-19, households that already were stressed are feeling more so due to unemployment and/or income loss. The risks to children are higher, too. Guardian ad Litem staff and volunteers are responding by shoring up newly reunified parents to keep those children safe. And we’re getting basic needs to families, like groceries, educational assistance like laptops and school supplies for at home learning, and more.
During Child Abuse Prevention Month, we always ask our community, the Florida Keys, to think about how they can protect children. First, pay attention to the kids in your neighborhoods and watch for signs of abuse and neglect. If you’re uncertain what those are, visit the DCF reporting site at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us or call 800-962-2873, Florida Relay 711, or TTY 800-955-8771.
Second, think about what fragile families need to get through this. They may need help and are too embarrassed or overwhelmed to ask. Is there something you can do to help?
Finally, I want to thank the many helpers in our community – health care workers and first responders, delivery people, grocery store workers and truck drivers, law enforcement officers and teachers and the many County and municipality workers who are still trying to serve the public and keep our wonderful communities running. Reading the stories of how others are helping is what keeps me going and if you could see our staff and volunteers in action, that would inspire you, too. To learn more about the Guardian ad Litem Program or to become a volunteer, visit GuardianAdLitem.org or call 866-341-1425.