July is National Make a Difference for Children month. And what better way to make a difference in a child’s life than by becoming a volunteer with the Florida Guardian Ad Litem program in Brevard County.
On national, state and county levels, many children are suffering. They are facing abuse and neglect, as well as an extreme lack of healthcare, food and supplies.
The Guardian Ad Litem program is one way to ensure these children are not left behind.
Guardians Ad Litem volunteers are people who become part of a court program to represent the best interests of an assigned child. A Guardian Ad Litem does not have to be a lawyer, counselor, therapist or parent. The volunteer is a representative for the child before the court, social service agencies and the community.
Cynthia Rickerd, a volunteer recruiter for the program in Brevard, said the Guardian Ad Litem represents the best interests of the child in a variety of ways.
Rickerd said volunteers independently conduct a thorough investigation on behalf of the child. He or she interviews the child, counselors, pediatricians, psychiatrists and psychologists, mental health professionals, people from the neighborhood, schools, churches, law enforcement and friends.
The Guardian Ad Litem also examines and collects records from many sources concerning the child. The volunteer then takes this information to the experts in the community for recommendations on what is best for the child.
Rickerd also said the Guardian Ad Litem serves as a monitor of the agencies and persons who provide services to the child. He or she assures that orders of the court are carried out and that families and children in need receive the help they should get.
The Guardian Ad Litem assures that the child’s wishes are heard and that the best interest of the child is presented to the court and agencies dealing with the child. He or she writes reports and speaks in court for the child, Rickerd explained.
In Brevard, Rickerd said 660 children are assigned to a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer. However, 276 children are without one. Therefore, the need for more volunteers.
“With the ending of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of cases,” she said. “That’s why we need more volunteers.”
To volunteer, Rickerd said you must be at least 21, complete a Level 2 background check (fingerprinted and criminal history check), and complete a 30-hour training program.
In addition to the training, Rickerd said volunteers are provided with a mentor, a child advisory manager and lawyers to counsel volunteers during each case.
“Each program has a network of community resources and experts who are available to assist each Guardian Ad Litem,” Rickerd said.
Sandy Samuel of Melbourne has been a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer for 3½ years. She decided to become a volunteer after working for the Women’s Center in Melbourne and domestic violence cases against battered women.
“I’ve always wanted to give back to my community,” said Samuel, who retired after 36 years as a program manager for Lockheed Martin. “I saw what was happening to children, working on domestic violence cases, and I wanted to advocate for them because they can’t express their wishes.”
Samuel said she likes advocating for smaller children, especially infants to 5 or 6. “I love that age,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing to do. I’ve learned so much about community support.”
Samuel said her biggest challenge is making sure the children and parents are given all the help and resources available to them.
“One of the problems is that there are not enough people working the system for them,” she said. “There is only so much you can do.”
“If you’re interested in volunteering, we ask that you give me a one-year commitment,” Rickerd said. “We have no age cutoff. We’ll take anyone between the ages of 21 to 75."
For more information about the Guardian Ad Litem program, call