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Guardians few for kids in court

Courts try to add volunteers to the scarce ranks of the Guardian ad Litem program.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003


DADE CITY -- Diane and Don Colvin have seen children at their best. They've seen parents at their worst.

They've taken careful notes, and then they've told it to the judge.

The Land O'Lakes couple volunteer in east Pasco for the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court's Guardian ad Litem program by providing a voice for children caught in the court system.

It's a worthy program, volunteers and supporters say. It's also sorely in need of volunteers.

The Colvins said they have seen troubling things and had some joyous moments since joining the ranks in 1998. They've visited downtrodden neighborhoods, seen children living in filth, heard tales of abuse and dealt with frustrating setbacks.

But they said the good they've done keeps them coming back for that chance to help a child.

They play the sleuth, uncovering truths that help circuit judges decide the fate of a child -- and a family.

"If you make a difference in one child's life, it's worthwhile," said Don Colvin, a retired Virginia public school administrator. "We really are the only advocate for a child. What we do now affects their whole life."

But the corps of guardians, in a field that pays nothing and demands a high emotional investment, is woefully short on volunteers, east Pasco's coordinator, Jodi Bixler said.

According to program figures, nearly 70 percent of children caught up in their parents' legal woes have no volunteer to represent them in court.

"Volunteers are the program," Bixler said.

Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper said the guardians' work is crucial to help her make the right decisions, but many cases go without that involvement.

To attract new volunteers, the Hillsborough and Pasco-Pinellas court circuits are among the first in Florida to benefit from a $55,000 recruitment grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rhett Usry, spokesman for the national Court Appointed Special Advocate organization, said money began flowing into the area in mid January for billboards and other outreach programs. So far, more than 110 inquiries have been generated at the toll-free 1-877-877-8625 telephone number set up for the outreach.

As a judge, Tepper oversees a pilot Unified Family Court division in Dade City, which combines a variety of family court services before one judge, who becomes familiar with the affected family.

A Guardian ad Litem provides a voice for the child that is untainted by demands of parents, the state's Department of Children and Families or law enforcement.

"They are a part of what I rely upon," Tepper said. "Sometimes it is because of their thoroughness and their luxury of time that they are able to bring information to me that is critical, that I would not have had otherwise."

Tepper said she understood the sacrifice volunteers make but stressed that volunteerism was a way to give back to the community in a lasting way.

"Many of us have jobs that are difficult," she said. "But a Guardian ad Litem volunteer has the benefit of satisfaction, a feeling of hope from doing something that affects the rest of that child's life."

The Colvins, who have two grown daughters and four granddaughters, said they have built on their experiences to become better guardians in every new case. In one, they figured out that a mother was still seeing a potentially abusive boyfriend and brought that information to the judge. In another case, they recognized that a mother had put other children in danger in jurisdictions far away and brought that to a judge's attention while the court was studying the situation.

"Children are so innocent; they can't make these choices," said Diane Colvin, a retired teacher. "When I stopped teaching, I never dreamed I'd still be lying awake at night, worrying about kids. But when you make a difference, it's worth every minute."

The Colvins say their contribution in time, up to 20 hours a week, and personal expense is above the norm. But they stressed that someone with spare time enough for even one case is a big help.

"To anybody who's thinking of doing this -- maybe it's someone who never had children, maybe an empty nester, maybe someone whose grandchildren live far away -- contact the Guardian ad Litem office," Tepper said. "Fill a hole. This is what makes a difference every day for these children."

FYI

To learn more about becoming a Guardian ad Litem, call (352) 521-4178 in east Pasco or (727) 847-8170 in west Pasco.

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