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GAL program holds dear to premature babies, abused children

Senior Editor News in Photos
Katie McCarey

Katie McCarey, a volunteer guardian ad litem in the 13th Circuit, feeds a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at a Tampa area hospital who was born to a mother with addiction issues. McCarey is part of a “SWAT” team of guardians ad litem who spend extra time not only with premature babies but other abused or neglected children who are hospitalized and in state care.

When Katie McCarey picked up the premature baby, he began to shake violently.

“It was pretty much the newborn hadn’t been touched in any meaningful way,” recalled McCarey, a volunteer guardian ad litem in the 13th Circuit. “He was startled, threw his hands up and started shaking.”

The infant was in the neonatal intensive care unit at a Tampa area hospital, where he had been born to a mother with addiction issues and hence wound up in state custody. For three weeks he had not been touched other than by hospital personnel.

His reactions reminded McCarey of a feral animal, and “I immediately knew that needed to change. Someone had to hold these kids.”

The result was a “SWAT” team of guardians ad litem who spend extra time not only with premature babies but other abused or neglected children who are hospitalized and in state care.

“We can’t leave newborns lying in hospital cribs for weeks on end,” McCarey said. “We have to begin holding them as soon as they’re sheltered from their parents.”

McCarey and the about 30 other members in the team provide extra attention for hospitalized babies and children in the GAL program.

“With newborns, it lasts about an hour. We bathe them, feed them, hold them, change diapers, and read some fairy tales,” she said. “With older children — right now we have a teenager and a six-year-old — it would be longer. We watch a movie, play with Legos, kind of hang out. It could be a two to three-hour visit.”

Florida Guardian ad Litem Program Interim Executive Director Dennis Moore praised McCarey and the program.

“I am proud of Katie and every volunteer who stepped up to assist with the Guardian ad Litem Hospital SWAT Team. The healing power of touch goes both ways. The volunteers feel it too,” he said.

McCarey formed the program in September 2020. Most participants are professionals with full-time jobs, she said, such as physicians, teachers, and speech pathologists. Although she hopes it changes, McCarey said at the moment all are women.

The volunteers are organized into two teams. The SWAT team handles the daily visits.

“Then we have a black ops team,” she said. “They handle the really bad cases. They hold babies as they pass away, and then make records available to medical examiners and law enforcement.

“If we’re not there, they’re pretty much passing away in the arms of clinical staff.”

The program gets helps from other organizations. The Voices for Children Foundation, which runs through the guardian ad litem program, provides every baby with a diaper bag, clothing, and a sound machine that produces soothing noises.

Hudson-based Knitters for Charity turns out blankets and socks, McCarey said, and “those babies really love those hand-knitted items.”

The Idlewild Foundation donates poppy pillows, which are used to help feeding babies, and specialty items such as cranial socks for abused babies recovering from skull fractures.

The volunteers make a noticeable difference. McCarey said nurses report that infants with the extra attention spend about a week less in the hospital and register heightened brain activity.

So far, the SWAT team has worked with about 150 infants and children (COVID did not reduce the caseload, McCarey said) and currently is working with six infants and two older children.

She added that the SWAT program is only the start for the children. Once they leave the hospital, they are assigned other guardians ad litem to help them in the court system and in foster homes.

The team works in six hospitals in Hillsborough County and two facilities in nearby counties. McCarey said she is working on rolling out the program to other circuits and said she hopes it provides an opportunity for people seeking a way to volunteer.

“People say, ‘Hey, what can I do to help the problem.’ I say, ‘Become a guardian ad litem.’ Guardians ad litem are everywhere. They check on kids in schools, they make sure they have necessities, they make sure they are happy in their foster homes,” she said.

McCarey said the approach follows her personal philosophy that a person should solve problems they encounter.

“My philosophy is when there’s a tortoise crossing the road, and it comes into your view, it’s your job to put it on the other side of the road,” she said. “It’s in my purview to do something because nobody else will.”

McCarey said people interested in helping premature infants and abused children should contact their local Voices for Children Foundation (the one for Hillsborough County can be found here.