Every day in this country 1,900 children are victims of abuse or neglect; four will die. Many of us wish we could help, but don’t know how.
Marie Fraser, a 74-year-old resident of Indialantic, Florida, found a way. She is an unpaid volunteer advocate, appointed directly by the Dependency Courts in her state to help judges make the right decisions for vulnerable children who are removed from their homes.
Each State’s Volunteer Program
Called Guardian ad Litem in Florida, the program trains volunteers like Marie and is similar to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which helps abused children in other states. In Marie’s County there are about 250 volunteers advocating for 850 or more children at any one time.
From a weekly description of new and current unassigned cases, Marie chooses ones she feels will be challenging and which balance cases she already has.
Usually she has five or six cases at a time.
Volunteer’s Objection Perspective
By getting to know each child and their parents, the home situation and reasons for removal, Marie is expected to offer a perspective independent of the caseworker. Sometimes she disagrees with the caseworker. But the goal is always to seek the children’s best interests.
Volunteers stay with children until they are placed in loving permanent homes. For many abused children, Guardians and CASA volunteers may be the only constant adult presence in their lives.
How It Works
If someone calls the Abuse hot line to report a suspicious situation, a sworn protective investigator is sent out who spends time with the family to see if a child should be moved for safety reasons.
When a child is removed, within four hours a placement must be found. An attempt is made to find relatives who can take the child, then a neighbor or friends. Foster care is always the last choice. A Shelter Hearing is scheduled before the judge within 24 hours to decide if there is “probable cause” for removing a child from the home. The parents are notified of the hearing and are encouraged to attend.
If the parents are indigent an attorney is appointed (the majority of Marie’s cases are indigent, she says.)
Case Plan for Parents
Within 21 days of the Shelter Hearing the offending parent is arraigned. The parent can ask for a trial or “consent”–an agreement to complete a case plan without admitting to the charges. A case plan—like a contract–contains tasks for parents to complete to remediate the causes for removal. The case manager follows up on the plan while Marie, as volunteer advocate, also tracks its completion. The goal is Case Plan completion and remediation within one year.
Marie meets with each child at least once a month away from the house where the child is living. This might mean a private walk in a park or simply sitting on a patio to talk.
While she also talks with the caregiver, Marie sees the parents or visits the original home of the child—noting the parents’ behavior and relationship with the child especially– to see if she feels ready to recommend that the child can return.
There are also regular court hearings to update the judge on how the child is doing and how the parents are progressing on their case plan tasks. The average time for remediation is 8 to 12 months. When a child is returned to the home, the Court, the case manager and Marie continue to monitor the case for additional months.
No Typical Abusive Parent
Marie says there is no “typical mother/father combination” and that social status “has nothing to do with it.” The majority of children and parents she deals with are not minorities.
Whatever form the parental abuse or neglect takes, “it is most commonly due to domestic violence, drugs or alcohol abuse,” Marie says.
Guardian Role is Challenging
Though specially trained and supported, it’s hard for volunteers to stay in a Guardian role very long because of the often heart rending conditions encountered. In fact, the average life of a volunteer Guardian is three to four years. Marie, however, has been a volunteer for eleven years with no plans to retire. Currently she has eleven cases with 19 children. The youngest is seven months; the oldest is 16.
“The goal is for children to return to their parents,” Marie says. “I do believe that change in the behavior of an abusive or neglectful parent is possible.”
This belief has allowed her to be an optimist in spite of some of the terrible situations she has seen. As a Guardian Marie Fraser has a role in changing the future of many children who might be lost. If she can help make the home they return to a better place than the one they left, perhaps she has even saved a life.