“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.” That’s how the sign on the wall in Marcia Hilty’s office reads. And that’s what hundreds of Guardian Ad Litem volunteers do every day on behalf of abused and neglected children in Marion County.
“It is a volunteer opportunity like no other,” explains Hilty, the circuit director for the Fifth Circuit Guardian Ad Litem program. “Our primary focus is to advocate for the child.”
If it takes a village to raise a child, the Guardian Ad Litem team is the village looking out for children who have been removed from the custody of their parents—kids who could so easily fall through the cracks without caring, dedicated adults on their side.
Here’s how the process usually works: A concerned adult places a call to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to request the agency check on the welfare of a child. DCF investigates the situation and determines whether the child needs to be removed from the home. If so, a hearing must be held within 24 hours, and a Guardian Ad Litem team member attends that hearing. If the judge agrees with the request to remove the child from the home, Hilty and her team seek out a volunteer to work on the case. The volunteer guardian immediately begins to work on the child’s behalf—talking to the child, parents, neighbors, school personnel, medical professionals and anyone who can help the advocates understand the situation and work toward resolution.
Diana Gisonni, director of recruitment and training, explains what is asked of the volunteer guardian.
“The volunteer visits the child every month,” she says. “We oversee and make sure their needs are being met as they go through the process. We’re basically speaking up in court for what’s in the child’s best interest.”
Hilty and Gisonni have both seen hundreds of cases that resulted in families being reunited and children flourishing with the help of Guardian Ad Litem volunteers. Hilty relates a particularly touching story from when she herself was a volunteer.
“I was assigned to a 12-year-old and he had not been attending school,” she begins. “He’d missed 100 days and had been placed with his grandparents. I found out he was still in the first grade because he had been missing so much school. Both his parents had died of HIV and he had HIV. His grandparents were alcoholics and were not communicating with the school. When he went to school he’d be teased and taunted.”
It’s an unthinkably sad story, and unfortunately, not altogether uncommon. This one, however, had a happy ending.
“When we got involved, we got additional help for him,” Hilty says. “With tutors and the right medical care, he prospered. It was just circumstances that had so negatively affected him.” And in each case the benefit is broader than just one child.
“You benefit not only that family, but if you think about it in terms of generations, by helping a 14-year-old to trust again and by modeling positive social behaviors then hopefully that 14-year-old will eventually pick the right person for his mate and his children will grow up differently,” Hilty explains. “We’re giving something to the community that’s really significant.”
Gisonni is currently seeking volunteers to assist the more than 500 children in Marion County waiting for a guardian. She urges anyone with the desire to help change a child’s life to consider volunteering. The training process takes about 30 hours in total, and an average court case can take around a year to resolve. The guardian is the constant in the child’s life throughout that process. For more information, visit www.guardianadlitem.org.