Volunteers John Zucker, left, Cathy Larkin-Richards and Mike Bailey discuss the ins and outs of representing children in court as a guardian ad litem.
CLEARWATER – Cathy Larkin-Richards has played a number of roles in the lives of the children she represents over the last seven years.
As a guardian ad litem, she is their voice in court when their parents abuse or neglect them or when the adults in their lives end up in jail or addicted to drugs. She makes sure they have clothing, school books, teddy bears, bicycles and blankets. She’s delivered dozens of birthdays, Christmases and holidays to their doorsteps.
She makes sure their parents learn how to become better parents, or she finds a close relative who will do a better job. She’s ushered at least four children through the process of being adopted into a new family.
She’s been called “Aunt Cathy” and “Grandma.” Some children, not understanding the Latin part of her title, call her their “guardian angel,” maybe not unintentionally. One 8-year-old girl called her “guardian ad lightening.”
“They’re just neat kids that bond to us quickly,” she said. “As a guardian, we’re a constant presence, sometimes the only consistent person in their life. We help the system provide for the child.”
Sometimes, what a child needs most is the persistence of a “squeaky wheel,” someone who fights for their best interest and needs, she said.
Larkin-Richards, of Seminole, is a full-time volunteer with the Guardian ad Litem Program for Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court, which encompasses Pinellas and Pasco counties. Around 3,000 children are under supervision in the Sixth Circuit, about 900 in Pasco County and 2,100 in Pinellas County. They represent 10 percent of all court-supervised children in the state of Florida, more children than any other circuit handles.
The court decides the fate of children who are victims of neglect or abuse. In such cases, both the mother and father are each represented by a lawyer, one the state is required to provide if they can’t afford it.
No one is required to speak for the child. So, in the most difficult or contested cases, a judge will order a guardian ad litem as an independent voice on the child’s behalf.
“The judges want us on these cases because they know that they’re going to get information from us, the guardian ad litem, that they wouldn’t get from anyone else,” said John Zucker, community relations coordinator and five-year volunteer for the program. “Nationwide studies have proven that the judges follow our recommendations 80 to 90 percent of the time. If they don’t, it’s because the law won’t let them.”
Children who are represented by a guardian go through the state courts twice as fast, with half as many ending up in a foster home, Zucker said.
The problem is, the circuit’s 650 guardians can cover only half of the children in the system, Guardian Ad Litem Circuit Director Donna Rasmussen said.
“We don’t have enough resources. We handle the more serious cases,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the stories are similar.”
Often drugs are involved, sometimes physical abuse. Other times, parents are in and out of their children’s lives or just can’t afford to care for them properly.
Guardians do more than represent children in court. Their job is to get to know the children through monthly visits and through their own investigative work. They need to be the eyes and ears of the state team put together to protect the children, said Zucker, who hosts weekly orientations for new guardians.
“Just because a child has fallen into the system, they should have everything you’d like your children to have. What we do is try to maintain that normalcy for them,” he said. “We don’t expect the guardian to spend any of their money. They just need to see the need, communicate that and we will work to fill that need.”
Zucker calls it the “fairy godparent” part of a guardian ad litem’s role. One of his first cases was a family of three children whose father had beat them with a stick and slammed his daughters against the wall by their hair. After the state removed them from that situation, Zucker learned that the oldest 13-year-old girl had lost her glasses and was struggling in school without them.
He called his guardian ad litem case coordinator, who knew where the girl could get an eye exam and glasses for free.
“Two days later, the young lady had her new glasses,” Zucker said. “It might have taken a month for the state bureaucracy to accomplish what we accomplished here in a very short amount of time.”
Later, after the children were placed back with their mother, Zucker got a call from her, when the colder months set in. The Guardian Ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay, an associated nonprofit that raises funds on the program’s behalf, gave the mother $200 so she could buy warmer clothes for her children that she otherwise couldn’t afford.
The cases guardians take on usually last at least a year and average about 18 months. As a rule, each case requires six to 10 hours a month.
Guardians try to provide the children they represent with more than the basic necessities. Children removed from an abusive situation often arrive at their new home with nothing but the clothes on their back. A simple blanket, which the guardians keep stocked in their office, can help create a sense of belonging.
“These children are forced into the system and they did nothing wrong,” Susan Neville, a guardian ad litem and president of the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation. “There’s no real comfort level for that child, nothing they can call theirs. Mom and Dad screwed up, but they get to stay in the house and it’s the child who has to move.”
Mike Bailey of Palm Harbor retired as principal at San Jose Elementary in Dunedin in 2007. His friends thought he might be crazy when he began considering becoming a guardian ad litem, given the 32 years he spent dealing with children in the school system.
His pastor had a different perspective.
“Mike, you know, you’ve been training your whole life for this calling,” Bailey remembered him saying.
Bailey hasn’t regretted the decision.
“My heart really is with the kids,” he said. “I just think every kid deserves a chance. A lot of the times, we are that chance. We jump through the hoops to make it happen.”
Under the threat of state budget cuts, the guardians in the sixth circuit lobbied every state legislator whose district covered one of the children they represented and asked them to spare the program. This year, the budget didn’t get cut. However, given the poor economy, the program’s goal of giving every neglected or abused child a guardian ad litem to represent them is still a losing battle.
“The number of children going into the system is still increasing,” Neville said.
Still, the program’s motto, “Just One” emphasizes the impact a guardian can make, even if they take on just one case. Many take on about three cases. The program advises against more than five, though Larkin-Richards’ case load far surpasses that.
“Our guardians tend to go the extra mile, and then a wee bit more,” Neville said. “The turnover rate is nonexistent. Our guardians are committed to the program. And no one does this to get rich.”
“We do get rich soul-wise,” she said.
Orientations for prospective guardians ad litem are held every Thursday in the program’s fourth-floor offices of the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center, 14250 49th St. The application process includes an extensive interview, a background check and training.
The next 30-hour training class will be held on Saturdays for five weeks starting Oct. 9, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Pasedena Community Church, 227 70th St. S, St. Petersburg.