Lawyer’s guardian ad litem work helps two children find a forever home
Rhonda can brag about her kids like any mom.
Nine-year-old Cylie likes math and art, particularly drawing. She recently learned to swim and enjoys that. She’s a budding authority on film, particularly Disney pictures, and can tell you when the movies were made, including both animated and human versions.
She has a “great imagination” and can entertain herself for hours with toys and dolls.
Her brother, Cayden, 2, has such an extensive vocabulary that people often ask how old he is. “Cayden is into anything and everything, whatever his sister has got, he’s into,” Rhonda said.
Sound normal? Not when you consider this family didn’t exist until this year. It came about with the help of Jacksonville attorney Alan Pickert, who got involved in his first case as a guardian ad litem. For Rhonda, a retired single woman in her 50s, it was her first time as a foster parent and when it became obvious they weren’t going back to their birth mother, she adopted both in October.
“I heard these two needed a mama, that their mama was having a problem, so I said they could come and stay with me,” recalled Rhonda, who asked that her last name not be used.
For Pickert, it was his first time as a GAL, a task he undertook at the urging of Fourth Circuit Judge David Gooding. Gooding approached him at a 2017 ceremony where Pickert, a litigation attorney and partner Terrell Hogan, was named Jacksonville Attorney of the Year for his extensive professional, charitable, and pro bono contributions. Pickert said he specifically chose to be the guardian, not attorney, ad litem for the children.
“I actually wanted to do this differently, I wanted to do it as a hands on, get your hands dirty, meet with the children every week, not as their lawyer, but as their confidant, as their objective voice,” he said.
Cylie and Cayden needed much from both Pickert and Rhonda.
Their father is in prison until at least 2029. Their mother had drug problems, putting that ahead of the children’s needs.
Cayden has serious dental problems because of the neglect of his oral hygiene.
Cylie had to repeat first grade because her mother was supposed to home school her and didn’t. She attended school for her second try but failed again because her mother didn’t get her to school on many days.
Her third attempt wasn’t going much better until the state placed the children with Rhonda in January, and she made sure Cylie made it to school every day.
She and Pickert, who became their GAL a few days later, worked with the state’s case workers and got her a tutor to help, as well as dental care for Cayden.
Cylie finished first grade and is now doing well in second grade, although Rhonda said she still is catching up on her reading skills.
Pickert said it’s been a journey, with monthly reports and hearings.
“The mother never attended any of the multiple hearings that we had throughout the course of a year. The father had court appointed lawyers and he attended by phone,” Pickert said.
None of it was made easier by the COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted in the middle of the process. Visits had to be masked and sometimes done remotely and hearings became remote (which actually saved travel time).
Despite his initial uncertainty and the extra burdens, Pickert said he’s glad he got involved.
“I was hesitant because I don’t do family law,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They are asking you from a simple human viewpoint, ‘What’s going on with the children?’ You get to be their [voice].”
That involved talking with Cylie and Cayden, Rhonda, teachers, case workers, and others.
“It is an incredibly rewarding experience,” Pickert said.
Part of that reward, he said, is watching the children “blossom” under Rhonda’s providing “a ton of love and a ton of structure.”
“One thing led to another,” Rhonda said of her involvement. “After being a foster parent for so many months, it was clear that the mom wasn’t going to do anything about getting the children back, so I said I would adopt them.
“I love them. They have become attachments to me.”
And like any parent, she has dreams for her kids: “That they have a happy, healthy life, they get a good education, they carry on and be whatever they want to be.”
So far the improvements are evident.
“Cylie is doing a lot better in school, she wants to go to school, she wants to learn. Cayden can talk, he can carry on a conversation,” Rhonda said.
Pickert said he plans to stay involved with Rhonda, Cylie, and Cayden and he expects additional issues.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ve got Cylie who had eight-plus years with a difficult environment and that’s a lot to overcome. And I think she had really made leaps and bounds in her strides to get better in every aspect of her life,” he said.
He and Rhonda noted that Cylie is older — and bigger — than her classmates and that can cause additional problems, although Rhonda is hopeful with additional tutoring she eventually can make up at least one year.
“Cayden, his situation is a little different,” Pickert said. “Once again, you’re talking about two years of your formative life not having a very loving, nurturing situation.
“I think there’s going to be a long road for both of them, but I feel strongly because what Rhonda has done and stepped up with the love and structure, they’ve got a chance to excel in life.”
“They do have a bumpy road, and I’m going to make it as smooth as possible for them,” Rhonda added.
Both are also sold on the value of the foster care and GAL programs.
“Take a chance and do it. Step up. All you have to do is be willing to take care of a child,” Rhonda said. “All they need is some attention and care and guidance.”
Pickert said many of his preconceptions were broken, including that foster and adoptive parents would be couples with traditional homes and yards — not retired single parents of non-exceptional means.
“I tell them [potential GAL volunteers] to do it. It is very rewarding, it is not as time consuming as you might think,” he said.
And the program continues to need volunteers.
The Fourth Circuit has 304 GAL volunteers for 1,154 children, of whom 690 have a GAL. Another 250 volunteers are needed.
Statewide, there are more than 31,000 children in the care of the Department of Children and Families, of which 23,000 have guardians ad litem. There are 11,485 GAL volunteers statewide, including attorneys and non-attorneys.
Florida GAL Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz echoed Pickert and said lawyers have useful skills as guardians, even if they don’t have experience in related areas of law. He also said the agency has many training resources.
“Attorneys out there practicing law have the training of critical thinking and that gives our agency an additional benefit of these skills,” Abramowitz said. “We have a support system to help them, they’re not alone.”
For more information about the program and volunteering, go to: https://guardianadlitem.org/.
As for rewards, Pickert said hugs are the best compensation going.
“Cayden is the best darn little hugger I’ve had in my life,” he said. “That boy can hug almost anyone I know.”