By Fred Hapner, Guardian ad Litem Director for the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, serving Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties
When Hurricane Michael devastated our world, no child who lived through it was untouched.
But the most vulnerable children often suffered the most. Many had families already struggling with addiction, domestic violence, mental illness or poverty – and the storm pushed many fragile homes over the edge.
And since the groups serving those children and families also were damaged – often badly – it was harder to respond. Staff worked from home instead of the rubble of their offices. Lack of infrastructure made communications a daily fight. Volunteers had to care for their own families.
That’s why you may not see all the usual signs that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. But Guardian ad Litem is still here and still fiercely devoted to our mission to protect kids.
And to prevent child abuse, we must understand it. The better we understand the long-term damage that trauma inflicts on children, the better we’ll be at heading it off.
For instance, we know childhood trauma – like regularly being hit or belittled, or witnessing domestic violence – can physically harm the body and brain for a lifetime.
We know the hurricane terrified many children, as did the damage their parents endured in its wake.
And we know that fully half of Florida children who come into the child welfare system are there due to parental substance abuse, compared to 39 percent of children nationwide.
So how can we strengthen families – and keep more children in their homes and communities? That’s the discussion we at Guardian ad Litem want to have this month and every month.
In the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, which serves Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties, there are 732 children in the dependency system, most in out-of-home care.
You can help them and others by learning about the programs and services offered here and about what you can do to make sure they are available and accessible. You can mentor children or families, serve on a committee or board, or write your elected officials to ask for their support of child abuse and neglect prevention. Or you can donate by attending or hosting child abuse prevention fundraising events, or by making a personal contribution.
We are deeply grateful for the 253 certified Guardian ad Litem volunteers in the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit and to our many donors and community partners. And just so you know, our program will recover from the storm. We don’t know when our building will be fixed, but we just trained a class of 7 new volunteers.
So if you are on the road to recovery, too, please consider volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem. Without an advocate, the odds are stacked against children in foster care. But a child with a volunteer advocate spends 20 percent less time in foster care than a child without one. And studies show children with volunteer advocates receive more critical services than those without, and are four times more likely to find a permanent home.
Join us by calling 850-747-5180 or visiting www.guardianadlitem14.com.