By Charlie Reed
There are 500 children in Osceola County who face legal problems so challenging and life-changing that they require an attorney.
Each one has been assigned a public legal representative to advocate for them. both in and out of court. It’s known as the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, and before it was created all these kids — many abused, abandoned and neglected by their own parents — went to court alone.
Now these minors get an attorney and case manager to represent their best interests in dependency court proceedings, which determines where and with whom they live.
Guardian ad Litem, often abbreviated GAL, came to Osceola in 1991 and has grown rapidly along with the county’s population. The same is true across Florida. So far in 2017, there are more than 30,000 children represented through GAL statewide.
The program relies not only on state funding but also a strong corps of dedicated volunteers.
Private donations help supply the children’s personal needs, education and development.
Voices for Osceola’s Children is the nonprofit fundraising arm of the local GAL program, headquartered at the Osceola County Historical Courthouse in downtown Kissimmee.
Last year saw record donations from a one-night gala event that brought in $30,000.
“We didn’t know it was going to be that successful. But it was such a blessing, we can do so much more now,” said Vanessa Bauknight, a St. Cloud native who started with Osceola GAL as an intern in college more than 15 years ago.
Now a Child Advocate Manager, Bauknight works closely with fellow staff member Gem Micheo, a GAL volunteer recruiter who helps manage and train the program’s 200 volunteers, some assigned to more than one child.
The crux of the program centers on giving a child a voice in court. Parents are represented an attorney who looks out for their interests, social workers determine the best interest of the family , leaving Guardian ad Litems to legally advocate for individual minors’ rights.
Much more complex and time-consuming than occasional volunteer work, GAL requires volunteers to attend special training to deal kids in crisis and a minimum weekly commitment to work with an individual child to check on with their general well-being — from identifying specific material needs to provide emotional support.
“It’s a lot. This isn’t a volunteer job for everyone. It’s not easy but it’s rewarding” said Micheo, who started with GAL more than six years ago as a volunteer advocate and now works on its small staff of advocates, attorneys and administrators. “I wouldn’t ask anyone to do what I couldn’t do working full-time.”
Many of the children coming through GAL are in foster care and their futures often remain in jeopardy even after their cases have been settled in court.
“It can be really frustrating and it just breaks your heart sometimes to see these poor kids and what they’re going through,” Bauknight said.
“It’s not like serving in a soup kitchen where you get instant gratification from helping someone in the moment. It’s heavy stuff and a lot of work and the courts don’t always rule the way we would like,” said Micheo.
But Guardian ad Litem is so respected by judges that its unpaid volunteers are considered as credible as paid social workers, said Micheo.
Along with the first-class advocacy and personal attention GAL staff and volunteers provide children, there is now more money to help them financially.
The huge fund the program now has thanks to the Voices for Osceola’s Children “GALa” last year is going a long way to provide material items the kids would have gone without otherwise.
The next one will be held Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Marriott Grand World Center with tickets available for individuals and corporate tables.
The $30,000 raised at the 2016 event has helped provide much-needed items — from sneakers to reading tutors — for the 500 vulnerable children currently represented by Osceola GAL.
“It’s so nice to not have to worry as much about where we’ll get the money for things like that. We didn’t have that before,” said Bauknight.
Micheo agrees. “It used to be so frustrating sometimes when a child needed something and we couldn’t get it for them. Now I love finding out when my kids need stuff.”
GAL Osceola also works with community partners throughout the year for fundraisers, events and outreach.
The local chapter of the Women’s Council of Realtors recently held a suitcase drive to help children in GAL, who often bounce from home to home within the foster system.
“Most of the time these kids leave their homes with their stuff in garbage bags. So even a suitcase is something that many of us take for granted but that these kids need,” Bauknight said.
Each year GAL brings together foster kids from all over Osceola to enjoy a day of mini-golf and other family activities.
“A lot of these kids are brothers and sisters who’ve been split up in the foster system, so this is like a reunion for them in a way,” Bauknight said. “We have great support from the community and our program is well known,” Bauknight said. “But we can always use more support.”
Right now, while all 500 children represented by Osceola GAL, have an attorney and case manager, only 350 have been assigned a volunteer because there aren’t enough to go around.
“We’d love if another 150 volunteers just walked in the door. We’d take ‘em,” said Bauknight.
However, just talking about the Guardian ad Litem Program helps, said Micheo.
“Our volunteers come from all walks of life — from working parents to retirees to former GAL clients. We get the word out so that if you hear about it but can’t commit to volunteering you might someone who can,” she said.
“It’s tough but rewarding work,” Micheo said. “But I do it because I think about the positive impact I can have in someone’s life. Plus, if we don’t do it, who will?”
For more information about the program or how to volunteer call 407 742 6600.