Marsha Strong, of Oakland, has served as a guardian ad litem to more than two dozen children in five years.
— Oakland resident Marsha Strong has spent her years in retirement helping local children as an advocate during court proceedings.
OAKLAND — Marsha Strong was nearing retirement when she caught an episode of “Dr. Phil” that would change the Oakland resident’s life — and the lives of dozens of Central Florida children in foster care and in need of an advocate during court proceedings.
Talk show host Phil McGraw is a big proponent of the guardian ad litem program, which provides trained volunteers who represent a foster child’s best interest in court.
“(Dr. Phil) was talking about it, and I just remember it resonating with me and thinking, ‘This is what I’m going to do when I retire,’” Strong said. “And then I retired, and I read in the paper that there was a training starting the very next morning. It was like it was meant to be.”
That was in 2009. Since then, Strong has represented about 27 children in the foster care system, including 1- and 3-year-old sisters from Apopka, an 11-year-old boy featured on Martha Sugalski’s Forever Family segment on NBC’s WESH 2 News and, most recently, a family of six siblings.
In Orange County, only an attorney can serve as a guardian ad litem. Strong works with the Osceola County Guardian Ad Litem Program, and she said there are many opportunities to volunteer to serve children in West Orange County.
She recently represented a 3-year-old boy who entered the foster-care system when he was just 5 weeks old. He is being adopted this month by his foster parents, who live in West Orange County.
Another child was adopted by his third-grade reading teacher. And in August, she had her finest moment, she said, when she represented six siblings who were ultimately adopted by three families living in close proximity.
“After they are adopted, I don’t see them anymore, but occasionally I’ll email or text to see how they’re doing,” Strong said. “Or, they’ll send a picture.”
According to Leslie Scott, director of the Osceola County Guardian Ad Litem Program, there are almost 30,000 kids in Florida’s foster care system — and about 9,500 guardian ad litem volunteers. Some volunteers serve more than one child at a time, she said, but that still leaves about 5,000 children without representation.
“We absolutely need more volunteers for these children,” Scott said.
These are minors who have been removed from their home by the Florida Department of Children and Families due to allegations of abuse or neglect, she said.
Advocates must be at least 21, complete 30 hours of training and consent to a background check. The next guardian ad litem training session starts Nov. 12. Applicants must take eight hours of training online, 12 hours of classroom training at the Osceola County courthouse, two hours of court observation and several hours of field work with a mentor.
“Really, the best way people learn is to do it with someone,” Scott said.
Those volunteering can also request specific children — such as those with special needs or babies or teenagers — or discuss which ones they aren’t comfortable serving, such as children in sexual abuse cases, and they will be matched up with a child who will best benefit from their representation.
“I have a couple of nurses who have some babies who have some pretty serious medical issues,” Scott said.
Advocates are always needed for newborns to teenagers who are almost 18 and about to age out of the foster care system.
“The goal is for them to have permanency, whatever that is, within 12 months,” Scott said. “These kids have had so many adults not follow through for them. I want them to have one guardian ad litem who knows that child, who can follow that child if they move from home to home.”
For that reason, advocates are asked to make a one-year commitment. They must visit the child at least once a month, and it can be in the foster home, at school or in another designated location. After six months, the volunteer can transport the child, maybe out for a meal or to play at the park. They write visit reports and attend, if possible, a judicial review every six months.
“We try to understand what they need and what they want,” Scott said. “We talk to their teachers. We talk to their families. We make sure they are in a safe, secure environment. We’re going to advocate for services if they need services, tutoring, help in school; maybe advocate for them to meet with their siblings, to meet or not to meet more with their parents.”
Volunteers spend an average of 10 hours a month working on each case.
“I love it, and I’m very thorough, and, to me, these are my children,” said Strong, who is the mother of an adult son, whom she adopted. “I am doing for them what I would do for my own child.
“Our successes are small and big in different ways,” she said. “It’s rewarding when you see a child get adopted. It’s rewarding if they can go back home if the family can be successful or, at least, better; or get them to a grandma…so they can be with family.”
Scott admitted it takes a lot of hard work.
“It’s not always warm and fuzzy,” she said. “It’s not always a happy ending, or happy during it. But you know you have to do what’s best for them. I always tell my volunteers, ‘This is not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.’”
Strong plans to continue serving as an advocate for local children in foster care.
“Children need a voice. They have a right to be heard and to be understood,” she said. “Every child is supposed to be appointed a guardian ad litem, but every child isn’t. There just aren’t enough of us.”
To find out more about the program or to sign up as a volunteer, go to the website, guardianadlitem.org, or call (407) 742-6655.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
• Do I have the qualifications needed to advocate for a child?
If you are concerned for the well-being of children and have continuing commitment to advocate for a child until a safe and permanent home is obtained, and if you are objective and non-judgmental and are able to interact with people of various educational, economic and ethnic backgrounds — you will be an effective guardian ad litem.
• What is the role of the guardian ad litem?
He or she carries out the following activities: investigation, facilitation, advocacy and monitoring.
• What are the responsibilities?
Responsibilities include visiting the child and keeping the child informed about court proceedings; gathering independent information about the child to recommend a resolution that is in his or her best interest; reviewing records; interviewing appropriate people; submitting a report recommending placement, a visitation plan, services and a permanent plan; attending court hearings and other related meetings; and maintaining detailed records.
• What types of cases require a guardian ad litem?
Cases in which children are under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families and involved in court proceedings require one.
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].