Meet Our Guardians
The Guardian ad Litem: 20th Judicial Circuit depends on advocate volunteers to push for the welfare of abused and neglected children. Each GAL volunteer guardian takes a hands-on approach to bettering their communities and working to complete our mission.
We hope you see a little bit of yourself in all of our GAL heroes and are encouraged to support our amazing organization.
Here are their stories.
Susan has been involved with the GAL Program for four years.
Originally she volunteered as an advocate in Michigan.
Susan became an advocate for a 4-month-old baby who is was two years old when a permanent placement was achieved. The baby’s mother was on drugs and had four children. The baby’s father was in jail, which left the baby the responsibility of her grandfather. It was simply setback after setback for this family.
The child’s grandfather finally got permanent guardianship– but only with the support and guidance of the guardian. Without the GAL volunteer, this outcome would not have been possible, and the baby would have been placed in the foster system They also were able to keep two of the other children together and arrange for continual visitation with the others. All would have been separated in foster care without the assistance of the GAL volunteer.
Susan pointed out that cases such as this are slow paced and difficult, but the final outcome is worthwhile and outweighs any setbacks one may come across.
Fort Myers, FL.
Trudy, a resident of Naples, Florida, has been a proud volunteer of the Guardian ad Litem Program for 18 years, starting as an advocate in Michigan.
With a large family of her own, including 5 children, 24 grandchildren, and a human resources background, becoming a GAL volunteer advocate was a natural transition.
Trudy has just cleared a 4-year-old for adoption. This child had been abandoned by her parents and was in the care of her grandmother. The little girl’s parents were dangerous and completely unable to love or care for their little girl and eventually gave up all parental rights in favor of adoption.
Trudy encourages anyone qualified to explore the idea of becoming a guardian and to not give up.
“There is no one else to give the children a voice or walk beside them”– you are the one stable presence in their lives.
As many of our guardians express, the need is very great for more volunteers, and Trudy believes the judges in Lee/Collier County listen well to the Guardian ad Litem’s, making the work involved extremely rewarding.
Trudy would like to note that guardians always have to be at the court proceedings.
Nora has been a GAL volunteer advocate for 17 years. She was a flight attendant for 25 years and one day when she was home on sick leave she was watching the Phil Donahue show. There was a woman talking about CASA and all of the good work they do. She was in the process of moving to Florida and decided to keep that volunteer possibility in the back of her mind. She decided when she got settled in Florida she would look into it.
Well, today she has had over 50 cases.
One special case was that of a four-year-old girl who had an IQ of 145. This little girl told Nora she couldn’t live with her mommy because her mommy made bad choices. Nora was floored by her awareness of the situation. This little girl was in several foster homes, some of which were verbally abusive, but the little girl persevered, and she was adopted after four years.
Nora reports that many abused and neglected children have anger issues toward their birth family for giving them away. Others stay devoted to their abusive and neglectful parents because it’s all they know…even though it’s bad.
Nora has a couple of words of advice for those considering becoming a volunteer. Never make a promise….too many promises have been broken by adults in these children’s lives. She also advises volunteers to never force a child to look you in the eye, because in their world that means you want something.
Nora says that any volunteer will “get more out of it [volunteering] than the child.”
Maxine C of Lee County worked in the business until her retirement five years ago. At that point, she decided that she had always loved children and wanted to work with them. Maxine had heard and read about the Guardian ad Litem Program and decided to become one now that she had the time to devote to the program.
Maxine said that she was very accustomed to working long days, so she asked to be “kept busy.” She currently is working with eight cases involving 19 children. They range from “at birth” to 14 years of age.
Maxine estimated that she has worked with over 30 cases over the years, On average most cases last about one year; three years is the longest that she has had a case.
Usually, there are family problems, such as drug issues and/or domestic violence, requiring the children to be placed in a safer environment.
The overall goal is to resolve the case in one year. Results have varied from eventual placement with grandparents, to reunite the family, to adoption.
Maxine describes being the Guardian ad Litem Program as “a very rewarding program that I would recommend to anyone who loves children.” She stressed that the guardian is sometimes the only person who remains constant in the child’s life through the duration of a case. Case managers and foster parents change. Maxine feels that dedication to the child and to resolving the child’s situation is paramount and she certainly exemplifies this belief.
Fort Myers, FL.
Meet Susan B.
I have been a GAL volunteer for four years. I used to watch Dr. Phil, and he had several programs about CASA volunteers. I believe he was an honorary chairperson at the time.
One of my cases involved a girl who is currently 13. She has a brother 15 months younger. She was just 10 when I first met her and learned of her story.
She and her brother had been abandonment by both parents. We tried to reunite the children, first with their stepmother, and then with an aunt and uncle. They were great kids, but in both instances, the adults involved put them back into the foster care system. It’s always our first priority to try to place with family. The authorities then allowed us to let the children interview “prospective families” and we were able to place them successfully. They have since experienced several “firsts”—like a first camping experience (in Wisconsin) and a first airplane ride. And they were adopted by the family this past May. It was a happy outcome, and I see them every couple of months. In fact, we’re seeing a movie next Tuesday.
I highly recommend attending the hour-long GAL orientation, where a panel of volunteers shares stories, and answer questions.
Persistence is an important quality for any GAL volunteer because the foster care bureaucracy can be challenging. I’ve had multiple case managers on a case over a short period of time—one stayed just one day. Patience with the process and love for children are important.
Ft. Myers, FL
Meet Stephanie Acorn
Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program provides a voice for thousands of children through volunteers who serve as mentors and confidants, advocating for the safety and well-being of society’s most vulnerable.
Estero’s Stephanie Acorn is among these dedicated advocates. A retired financial analyst of indomitable spirit, she defines her purpose from day one on a case: “I am here for the child.”
She doesn’t pander to the wishes and whims of parents, legal guardians or relatives. Her job is to assess what living arrangement is best for the child and to be a stabilizing force in an emotional situation.
When Acorn was called to advocate for three boys living in Golden Gate four years ago, she immediately approached the eldest, then age 12, to make her relationship clear: “I told him, ‘I’m not here for your mother; I’m not here for your grandmother; I’m here for you.'”
“Stephanie is wonderful,” said Holly Rodriguez, director of the 20th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. “We need a lot more volunteers like her.”
“I have been a volunteer advocate for six years. I became involved when one of my church
members (without my knowledge) told Holly Rodriguez, at the time the head of the local
Charlotte County GAL Program, that I would make a good Guardian ad Litem. She called me: I went in and talked to her and thought this might be an activity that would interest me. I took two weekends of training in Ft. Myers was given a case to handle and decided to give it a try.
I will always remember my first case. I had two brothers, ages seven and four. There were two different fathers who were not present. The boys had just been removed from their mother due to her drug abuse. When I first saw the boys, they had just been removed from their mother and were at the foster parents’ house. This was the foster parents first ever assignment. I will always remember those two boys standing together, holding hands.
There was continued drug abuse on the part of the mother and the boys were placed with their maternal grandmother. The foster parents had decided they would no longer continue in the foster parent program and guardianship moved to the grandmother. This woman had two other children, not of her family, so she was caring for four children.
Approximately nine months after the grandmother was granted guardianship, the mother surprised us and managed to defeat her drug abuse problem. She went to court and won back the custody of her children.
Shortly after this, the father of the older boy went to court and won custody of his son, thereby
splitting up the brothers. This man did love his son and I give him credit for his interest in his
son. He did, though, have legal problems and the mother was determined to rebuild her family. She returned to court and regained custody of the older boy. She now has custody of both boys. A local group gave the mother a scholarship that has allowed her to attend cosmetology school. She is currently studying for her certificate that will allow her to earn a living for her family.
I am intensely proud of this young woman who has turned her life around and is providing a good life for herself and her children. This case took 3 ½ years from beginning to end. The family has completed a six month review period by the court and is considered resolved.
I think the best way to consider the program is the way I did; take the training and try one case.
Use it to decide if you want to do it long-term. I have handled 25 -30 cases and have found the grandparents to be heroes in these stories. They provide the caring, love, and stability the children need so badly. They also are a good source for the volunteer as to how the parents of the children are really doing.
The system is not perfect, but it is pretty close to perfect.
Charlotte County, FL.
“I learned about the Guardian ad Litem program from a friend who told me about some of the children she had known through the program. At the same time there was an article in the newspaper that described the need for volunteers. I signed up for the required training, accepted a case and have been a GAL volunteer for six years.
One case involved a little baby boy. His mother had drug problems and was in and out of jail. The baby was in foster care. The father was in jail. The father was released, impregnated the mother, and was rearrested. He then was completely out of the picture.
The mother now had a baby boy and a baby girl, about a year apart, both in foster care. She entered drug programs but kept lapsing. The recommendation was made to terminate her parental rights. This seemed to get through to her. She could not afford a behavioral program, but about this time was offered a free behavioral program. She entered the program and did well. The program ended after six months due to lack of funds, but people kept helping the mother.
During this time the children were in foster homes, at times in two different foster homes.
The mother kept meeting the goals required for her to be reunified with her children, She had a history of having two children previously removed from her care. They are now teenagers and cared for by her parents. This time her determination to regain and care for her children was unwavering.
She has been drug free for over two years, and despite having a felony on her record, she managed to find a job.
The family is together. The mother demonstrates good parenting skills. The case took over three years. It feels very good to know that I have been involved in a matter that that has helped a mother get and stay off drugs and have her children returned to her.
Volunteers should know that you can get very involved in these cases. They do take lots of time and events such as the scheduling of court hearings are entirely out of your control.”
Punta Gorda, FL