I’m writing with a full heart as someone who works with abused, abandoned and neglected children.
It’s a challenging job in the best of times. And now, like many others serving vulnerable children and families, we at Florida Guardian ad Litem are digging down to our deepest reserves of energy and care in the pandemic.
We know there are children out there suffering abuse, neglect and trauma that will mark them all their lives. Now we are seeing a spike in child abuse reports as children return to school. Communities throughout Florida are preparing to serve these children, and it is going to take all of us. Let me explain.
As you may have read, child abuse reports went down during the pandemic. While every Floridian is obligated by law to report child abuse, the teachers, coaches and day care workers who usually see children daily weren’t having that consistent contact. They couldn’t look into the children’s eyes, notice changes, or have the chance to call the abuse hotline if needed.
Now, as students return, we are seeing vulnerable children for the first time in months — and Guardian ad Litem is already seeing a rise in the need for volunteer child advocates and other supports. Our Program represents maltreated children with the help of community volunteers who advocate for their best interests.
So, I can’t tell you how crucial it is that Floridians have continued stepping up during the pandemic. From March through August, 901 people became trained, certified GAL volunteers.
Often the odds are stacked against children in foster care, but giving them an advocate can greatly improve those odds. A child with a volunteer advocate spends less time in foster care than a child without one.
Children with volunteer advocates receive more critical services than those without and are much more likely to find permanent homes. They do better in school.
Now, as reports of child abuse climb, we need Guardian ad Litem volunteers more than ever.
Everyone can help in some way, and I hope you’ll think about how you can. Guardian ad Litem offers online training that prepares you to advocate for children as part of a team with support from attorneys and child welfare professionals. Another option is to get involved with the nonprofit supporting the GAL program in your circuit, which does all it can to raise awareness and funds for the children we represent.
Finally, you can help by being vigilant about the signs of child abuse. Look out for the kids in your neighborhood.
If you’re uncertain what the signs of abuse and neglect are, visit the DCF reporting site at reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us. You can also phone in a report at 1-800-962-2873.
To learn more about the Guardian ad Litem Program, please visit GuardianadLitem.org or call 1-866-341-1GAL.
Kristen Solomon is Guardian ad Litem Statewide Director of Operations.
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