Volunteer Guardian Ad Litems Advocate For Children

kathleen sobczak

I’ve had that posted over my desk for the last few years.

We see stories every day about children taken from an abusive home or because of the tragic loss or a parent —to illness or violence or incarceration. We assume there must be a program or system that will take care of these children and make sure they are treated with dignity, given a safe place to live, so they can recover from their hardship and be a child again.

Behind the headlines, there are thousands of children in foster or relative care who are frequently moved to new situations or totally abandoned. A 7-year-old girl who was sexually abused and transferred to four foster homes and three schools in one year. Young siblings separated in different counties with no contact for months, after witnessing their mother being attacked; children with medical conditions with no continuity of care or medication; children who are left homeless when they turn 18 because they age out of the system. These children carry their meager belongings in a black garbage bag with each transfer.

These children can have better endings, because there is a group of trained volunteers, appointed by judges to advocate for these children. People who fight for these abused and neglected children, to make sure their basic rights and essential needs don’t get overlooked or ignored by the system.

“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC publishes the ACE test to determine future health risk. Most children in foster care have high scores that will affect the rest of their lives. The study found there was a direct link between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease as well as depression. Try taking the 10-question test at cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy. It will open your eyes to how blessed you have been or show you why you have had certain problems because of your answers to thing that have happened in your life.

I have had the pleasure and pain of working with many of these children and families for the last decade. There are volunteer and professional organizations in our society to assist these children and families. I am a Guardian ad Litem for children, a volunteer network of people who believe every child has a right to be treated with dignity, to be safe, have their health and medical needs secured and thrive with a loving family. There is a large turnover of staff in the foster care system, due to low pay, long hours and the ability to handle the frustrations of the “system.”

Many of the children constantly have new case workers, new foster care situations and new schools. I am the one constant figure in the lives of these children. I must see them at least once a month, and these cases can go for years, although the goal in Florida is twelve months. When a new caseworker comes on, I am consulted for the status and background, instead of digging through files to learn what has happened to a child and why this is the fourth foster home and school this year. Also, the medical care provider changes, depending on where the child lives. I ask about certain medications and suggest therapies to newly assigned doctors and therapists. I am in court at least once every 3 to 6 months for each child and speak to the judge at every court hearing. I advise on the safety of current placement, progress and needs of the child, and request the judge order sibling visitation, at the expense of the state. Through local foundations, I request and obtain computers, clothing and birthday gifts, orthodontic braces or summer camp.

Just today, I was in a staffing meeting with the state’s case manager, attorney, foster care parent and others involved in the care of an 8-month-old baby. The baby was born to a drug-addicted mother who had previous children removed from her care. This baby is now showing signs of irritation with loud noises and has an increasing circumference of her skull. She is scheduled to be examined by a pediatric neurosurgeon. I am the person who will communicate and translate the child’s needs to the court, to the foster care provider and to the daycare staff. I will demand the best care and equipment for the child’s situation and continuity of care if transferred.

Before I began in this volunteer position, I was a nurse case manager for a large hospital system. I worked with families who were raising children outside of the foster care system. Many adults do not qualify for formal foster care due to their past situations but are still caregivers to children in their families, grandmother, aunts, cousins, older siblings. The state of Florida has eased some of the requirements for these families to received subsidies from the state to benefit these children who fall through the cracks. The easing of restrictions allows us to affect more children for better results with more supervision and provide benefits to those partial family units.

One of the children I worked with in the informal foster care system was a child with severe autism, whose mother had died. A cousin had taken in the child to raise with her own family. This woman did not understand the severe needs of the child, a 12-year-old girl, who was mute, 120 pounds and not toilet trained. This child could run fast, climb on anything and eat any piece of paper in reach (examination table paper, chart, newspaper, etc.). It quickly became apparent that this was destroying the cousin’s home and family. Her toddler stopped talking and began grunting like the girl. The girl destroyed most of the furniture in the house and the refrigerator had to be chained shut. The doors were chained because the child would escape. I asked the court to appoint a Guardian ad Litem for the child’s best interest and requested this child be placed in a facility for the 24-hour care she needed. This was never done, because there were no available Guardian ad Litems who were nurses or medically trained to represent this child’s needs. After 4 months of the child not coming to clinic appointments, and the states’ case manager telling us the child was fine, the girl was found dead. The caregiver was accused and tried for first degree murder. My testimony and documentation with repeated pleas for more care for the child revealed the neglect by the state-appointed case manager (who was jailed as a result of my documentation). After 6 years of court proceedings and jail time, the first degree murder charges were dropped due to my testimony and documentation. The cousin plea bargained to neglect and time served. I believe a nurse Guardian ad Litem would have prevented this tragedy, and I determined to join the ranks of the Volunteer Guardian ad Litems.

Nurses are caregivers. We love people, even difficult ones, and put their needs before our own, over and over again. Many have extremely busy lives, but some of us can find the time to be generous to those in need. This can be done financially and/or personally with your time.

In Florida, we are called Guardian ad Litems. Throughout the United States, there is a need for volunteer child advocates. The National Association of Court Appointed Child Advocates has 93,000 volunteers, but more are needed.

Will you join me in helping these children? The rewards are invaluable, the smile when you bring them a birthday cake, or attend an award ceremony at their school, along with the hugs and laughter. One of my teenagers in a foster group home has made me promise to bring him brownies as soon as social distancing is over. We need nurses and medical professionals. Every child has psychological damage, and many have additional medical issues. Open your heart. In Florida call 866-341-1425. www.GuardianadLitem.org. In other states, contact www.NationalCASAGAL.org.

Kathleen Sobczak, RN, BS, CRRN, CNLCP, CCMis Guardian ad Litem, 12th Judicial Circuit Florida, and president-elect, Florida State Association of Rehabilitation Nurses.


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