D. LORNE COYLE, MDIV.
Ashley Garrison was one of them. More on her in a moment.
1200 is the number of children who need foster care in our area. The state defines that area as Judicial District 19, comprising Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, and Okeechobee counties. There are so few foster homes in our area that our children are now being sent to Jacksonville’s foster homes.
Who speaks for those children? Various overworked and understaffed state agencies help. But there is one which consistently advocates for those children. It is the State of Florida Guardian ad Litem Program. According to its website, it is “…a network of professional staff and community advocates, partnering to provide a strong voice in court and positive systemic change on behalf of Florida’s abused and neglected children. There are 21 local Guardian ad Litem programs in 20 judicial circuits in Florida.”
They always need more committed volunteers. One Guardian recently said of the huge need, “It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. But it’s worth it just to affect one child’s life.”
Ashley was born into a highly dysfunctional family. Her mother was incapable of consistently caring for her three children. By the time she was four, Ashley had learned to make a grilled cheese sandwich. She had to feed herself and her little brother. At times the neglect and abuse became so bad that Ashley would take her little brother and run away and hide. So the court appointed Guardians ad Litem to protect and advocate for the Ashley and her brothers. Ashley was eight when she received her Guardian.
She needed protection and support. Not to mention love. Her Guardian ad Litem was always there for her. When her Department of Children and Families caseworker would resort to the courts for Ashley, her guardian would be there to protect her interests and speak on her behalf. The guardian would visit with her and care for her, at times the only functional and trustworthy adult in her life.
Later, when Ashley was 12, she was placed in a girls group foster care home. While she was there, her Guardian continued to care for and protect her. When she went to the first family foster care home, her guardian followed her like an angel. When that failed, and the next one failed, and the next one failed, the Guardian was there. “I always felt like the puzzle piece that never fit,” she says. Finally, at the age of 16, she found her forever family, Cathy and Vern Hedden. They loved her and she loved them back. She calls them “Mom and Dad.” And the Guardian was still there.
Ashley later married her high school sweetheart, who is now serving in the US Army. They have a daughter, 5. Ashley is happy. Loved.
She has also become a Guardian ad Litem. “I want to give back and make a difference in a child’s life,” she says. The program trained her and now she’s responsible for loving and protecting two foster children. She is become the Guardian angel she once needed.
“I jumped at the opportunity to serve as a Guardian ad Litem,” says Ashley. “God put me on earth for a reason and being a Guardian is a huge part of it.”
1200 of our children need protecting and loving. Ashley is doing her part.
If you are interested in doing your part, May is National Foster Care Month. The Guardian ad Litem Program is holding a training conference on May 14 and 15, 9 am to 4 pm, at the United Way of Indian River County community room at 1836 14th Avenue. To attend, you must pre-register. To pre-register, call 772-785-5804.
Editor’s note: D. Lorne Coyle, author of InsideVero’s regular “Helping Hands” feature, is a resident of Vero Beach and a non-profit consultant.
It would be useful to know about the requirements to be in the Guardian ad litem program.