Program leads way in child abuse prevention

Published: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 3:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 3:45 p.m.

Sheena Lewis vowed to become a Guardian ad Litem child advocate volunteer when she became an adult soon after receiving only one visit during a six-month period while she was a teen in the child foster care system in Florida.



* What: Get trained to advocate for abused children.

* When: Beginning Monday.

* Where: Guardian ad Litem office, 14 S. Main St.

* Information: Call 352-672-2592.


* What: The Celebrate the Child Carnival with face painting, food, games and more.

* When: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday.

* Where: Alachua County Library Headquarters, 401 E. University Ave.

* Information: Call 352-334-3941.

"I was considered a courtesy case, so my volunteer had to drive a great distance to come see me, and I thought later on that if she would have came to see me more, she would have been able to kind of reunify me with my family, as opposed to me staying in foster care," said Lewis, now 31 and the mother of three. "So, I basically said if I ever had the opportunity to help another child, I would help them not stay in foster care longer than they have to."

April is observed as National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Lewis and others across Alachua County, the state and the nation will take steps to increase the awareness of the child abuse epidemic in the U.S. with the help of the Guardian ad Litem program and events planned in Gainesville and the state capital.

The Guardian ad Litem program is a volunteer-based program that uses court-appointed volunteers to advocate for and protect the rights of children who have been removed from their families by a court because of abandonment, abuse or neglect.

The program is a part of the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida, which includes Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties.


To kick off events in Gainesville, the Alachua County Child Abuse Prevention Task Force will host the 11th annual Celebrate the Child Carnival from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday in the courtyard of the Alachua County Library Headquarters in downtown Gainesville. The event will feature more than 30 agencies and businesses that provide services for children. There will be face painting, food, games, jugglers and prizes.

Another highlight of the month will be the display of pinwheels at the pond at the North Florida Regional Medical Center, which will be placed this weekend.

And the Florida Legislature, which is in session, will celebrate Children's Week beginning Sunday through April 11 in Tallahassee with thousands of families, students, teachers and others passionate about issues that involve children, such as education and health. The highlight of the week will be the Hanging of the Hands Dedication ceremony, which will take place from 12:30-4 p.m. Sunday in the Capitol Rotunda. The hands will be decorated cut-outs of hands from students in child care centers and schools from around the state.

Other scheduled events during Children's Week in Tallahassee include guided tours of the Capitol and an awards dinner and reception, both on Monday, and the Children's Week Breakfast and the Legislative Reading Corner, both on Tuesday.

When it comes to volunteers, Lynn Deen, a Guardian ad Litem recruiter, said blacks, especially black men, are desperately needed to help ensure the safety of children in the foster care system. She said to become a volunteer, those interested must complete 30 hours of training that features an overview of what is expected from volunteers, along with identifying resources in the community to help make sure children being represented get all of the services they need. Most of the training will take place during scheduled classes, with the remaining hours used to observe court proceedings and train online.

Deen said training classes will be held from 5:30-8:30 p.m. beginning Monday at the Gainesville office at 14 S. Main St. She said anyone interested in attending this training cycle must call her as soon as possible at 352-672-2592. There also will be a training session from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. June 17-20.

Males needed

In 2012, 426 children died from abuse in Florida, but Guardian ad Litem volunteers are crucial in getting that number lowered. Volunteers keep in touch with the children they are advocating for to inform them about court proceedings, gather and assess information related to the child's case to make a resolution to the court that is in the child's best interest, interview appropriate parties involved in the child's case and other things that all revolve around making sure the child is safe, and when appropriate, is returned to a life of "normalcy" with their families, said Deen.

She did not have the numbers for how many black children are in the GAL system in Alachua County, but she did say 43 percent of children in the program in the circuit are black or biracial, with 50 percent of them males. However, she said less than 1 percent of the active volunteers in Alachua County are black males. She also said volunteers are only required to meet with the children once a month, so a lot of communication is done on the phone and via email.

"We really would love to have more African-American men come in because as you can see, we have a whole bunch of African-American boys that need somebody like a mentor that they can relate to," said Deen, adding that Kamal Latham is the only active black male volunteer in Alachua County, although there are other certified volunteers who are inactive.

Latham, vice president of public policy at the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, said he became a volunteer because of his "Christian faith" and his desire to help others.

"It has been very rewarding," Latham said. "The opportunity to represent the best interests of children that are in the dependency child welfare system is a high honor."

Latham said during the training process, he learned how to understand the needs of children in the program and about the many different resources available to help the children. Latham said his sales pitch to get other black men to become volunteers would include informing them about the many black boys in the system.

"The majority of the children in the system are African American, and I also think the majority of them are male, so you have a huge percentage in the system who are black males, and there are very few black male volunteers," Latham said.


Last year, eight staff members of the Reichert House, an after-school program for school-aged boys in southeast Gainesville, became certified volunteers. One of them is John Alexander, executive director of the Reichert House, who said becoming volunteers was a perfect fit with what he and the staff do with the boys at the Reichert House.

"One of the reasons we got involved with the program is that we have kids in the Guardian ad Litem program and we just felt being certified would give us greater access to those kids," said Alexander, adding that although he has not received a case with a child, he has assisted other volunteers with their cases.

Alexander said it is important for black boys in the child foster care system to see and interact with positive black male role models.

"They need to see something different than the negative black male figures that may be in their lives," Alexander said.

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