Clay, Nassau and Duval counties in critical need of guardian ad litem volunteers

Clay, Nassau and Duval Counties are in a dire need of guardian ad litem volunteers.

Those are the court-appointed child advocates used to meet the needs of abused and neglected children.

“You say how many lives I’ve touched -- I’ve been touched by them and these children,” said Lauri Dieterle.

Dieterle has been a guardian ad litem volunteer for 10 years, ever since her own children moved out of the house and went away to college.

She’s worked with over 100 neglected children, including some who suffering from emotional, sexual or physical abuse, and she works to fill the void left by an absent parent when that child needs it most.

STORY: Foster kids at risk; Warning for small biz owners; Car leasing costs going up 

“I’ve attended graduations from kindergarten through high school, birthday parties. I’ve been to family members' funerals. I’ve just oftentimes take that child out for ice cream," Dieterle said.

Guardian ad litem volunteers act on behalf of children in the courts and play a role in determining if a child is placed back with their family or in a foster home.

As of December 2018, there were 1,118 children admitted to the guardian ad litem program, but only 712 of them were matched with staff members. That leaves the need for at least 400 more volunteers.

Samari Franco, a recruiter with the program, says part of the problem is that there are many transient people in the Jacksonville area.

“We have people moving in and out of the city regularly. We also have volunteers that go on leave and we are currently being appointed regularly on cases,” said Franco.

STORY: Palatka police officers help give once homeless kids a Christmas

New children are coming into the system constantly, Franco said -- sometimes three to four times a week.

Action News Jax sat in on a training session on Friday for 21 volunteer supervisors across Duval, Clay and Nassau counties who are working to fill the gap right now.

Some of the volunteers have 20 cases at a time.

That’s why volunteers, such as Dieterle, are crucial to help these children. “You don’t get paid for this in money, but you get paid in your heart,” she said.

Those interested in becoming a volunteer need to meet the following criteria: 
1. You will need to make a 12 to 18-month commitment to the guardian ad litem program and should remain on the case until a permanency decision is made for the child(ren) assigned to you.
2. You will need to be available to do a face-to-face visit once a month at the child's residence, complete a small amount of paperwork and write mandatory reports for the court. 
3. You must have reliable transportation, a valid driver's license and car insurance.
4. You must have a minimum of two to three hours per week to volunteer..
5. You must submit to a Level 2 national Federal Department of Law Enforcement background screen prior to being certified as a guardian ad litem.