Spring 2008 Issue

Spring 2008 Issue

Joni's Army

This School of Social work alumna has built the largest army of advocates for dependent children in the United States

By Celeste Fraser Delgado

Joni's Army

Beverly Mattocks just could not make the recommendation. As volunteers with the Miami-Dade County Guardian Ad Litem program, she and her husband, Clinton Mattocks, had been assigned the case of five siblings – all under the age of 10 – whose parents lost custody of them due to substance abuse. The Mattocks' job was to gather information to help the court decide where the children should live and who could best take care of them. They observed the children at school, in their after-school care program, and in the homes of various relatives who had taken them in temporarily. At one home in particular, something did not seem right.

The Mattocks visited the house at least once a month, for several months. What struck them was that the children's behavior was entirely different when they were there. At school they laughed and smiled and horsed around as most children do, but at their new home they behaved almost too well. Throughout the visit, the children spoke softly and looked furtively at each other. It was as though they were worried about what might happen next.

"I can't give you any concrete evidence," Beverly Mattocks reported to the court. "But my gut tells me, it's not the right place."

As guardians ad litem, the Mattocks make sure the children's interests are represented in court. Because children are usually not present during the proceedings that determine their fate, they exist for judges only on paper. "These are paper children. Our volunteers make children come alive for the judge," says Joni Goodman '77, director of the 11th Circuit Guardian Ad Litem program since 1982 and recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from the School of Social Work. The Mattocks persisted and eventually the children were removed from that house and placed with their grandmother. Now the children go fishing and to the theater with grandma. She buys them new clothes.

"You can just tell the children are happy. My husband says he wishes she were his grandmother," says Beverly.

This is one of five cases the Mattocks have been assigned since they first volunteered in 2004. In all, they've helped the court make decisions about 16 children, with eight children adopted and six more in the process of either being adopted or assigned to a permanent guardian.

While professional social workers employed by the state often have heavy caseloads that make it difficult to devote attention to any one child, Goodman explains, guardians typically work on one case at a time and focus on a single child or a group of siblings.

"No one does more for a child than a volunteer," she says. "They will climb mountains of bureaucracy."

Usually newcomers to the juvenile justice system, with powerful ideals, volunteers often persevere despite considerable obstacles to promote the outcome they believe is best for the child. "Our volunteers come in with a vision of what ought to be for these kids," she adds. "That has kept us – all of us [on staff], not just me – feeling outraged about the problems in the system."

With her ready smile, sparkling brown eyes, and a miniature sailboat dangling from her neck, Goodman does not look particularly outraged. Yet, her determination has grown Miami-Dade's GAL from a struggling pilot with a staff of three and a handful of volunteers into what is now the largest program of its kind in the country.

Today, 90 full-time staff members and more than 600 volunteers serve 3,300 children – roughly 80 percent of those currently in dependent care in Miami-Dade County. Because Goodman also is regional director for GAL programs in southeastern Florida, she supervises the directors of programs in Broward, Collier, Lee, Monroe and Palm Beach counties, representing a total of 8,000 kids.

The concept of the guardian ad litem arose from the Federal Child Abuse Prevention Act of 1974, when funds were allocated to the states for programs for prevention, identification, and treatment of child abuse and neglect. In 1977, a judge in Seattle was the first to propose a program for recruiting citizen volunteers to represent the interests of children in juvenile court. There are now more than 50,000 court-appointed special advocates (or guardians ad litem) reporting to the court on behalf of some 225,000 children across the country.

That same year, Goodman graduated from Barry University with a master's degree in social work. "I was an idealist," she confesses. "I think when you go into social work, you want to change the world."

After two years working with the mentally ill in criminal court and two more on staff with the Florida agency that used to be called Health and Rehabilitative Services, she married and spent six months on her honeymoon, sailing the Caribbean with her husband. When the newlyweds returned, Goodman was eager to take up her career again. Her friend and neighbor, Marcia Cypen, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami, told her about a new program designed to represent children's voices in court. As Cypen recalls, the first thing Goodman asked when she heard about the job was, "Don't I have to be a lawyer?"

That was a question Goodman also had to "answer" for the judges in juvenile court who, in the early years, were reluctant even to assign cases to her GALs.

"There was a concern about relying on lay citizen volunteers, as opposed to lawyers," Goodman says. Indeed, the GAL program depends on lawyers, both paid and pro bono, to advise guardians in making their recommendations and to conduct all official legal proceedings.

Yet, as Goodman quickly learned, the guardian's most important role is outside the courtroom, gathering information about the children's circumstances that swamped judges and lawyers often do not have time to discover. This might include tracking down witnesses, following up to make sure that any court orders, such as court-mandated therapy for the child or caretaker are complied with, or ordering a psychological evaluation of the child.

The guardians also provide a consistent presence in the children's lives during an often chaotic time. Social workers, lawyers, even judges, may change, but the guardian is always there.

"This is not Big Brother or Big Sister," Goodman emphasizes. "They have to maintain their objectivity, so they can't take them to the circus or the zoo. But often the children look around the courtroom and the most familiar face they see is the guardian ad litem."

By the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, judges were making so many referrals for GALs that the program had to turn down all but the most egregious cases of abuse due to a lack of resources. Realizing that funding from the state and the county would never be sufficient to guarantee a voice in court for every child in the system, Goodman established a separate nonprofit, Voices for Children. The funds raised by the organization make up more than 40 percent of GAL's $4 million annual budget, and are used not only to train and support the guardians, but to help meet many of the children's accompanying educational, health care, and social needs.

Voices for Children also provides an opportunity for volunteers who want to help, but do not want to serve as advocates. "This can burn you out," Goodman says. "A lot of volunteers want to give back in other capacities."

Whatever role the volunteers play, as guardians or fundraisers, Goodman says the experience deepens their commitment to helping children. And, over the years, Goodman has built what she calls an "army of advocates" as volunteers and staff members "spread their commitment" to others in the community.

"When Joni calls and says we have an issue that we need to resolve, we get our teams together and resolve the issue," says Rachel Sottile, director of Charlee Homes for Children, a private foster care agency serving nearly 700 children in Miami-Dade County.

In 2005, Goodman helped form the Miami Children's Advocacy Network in order to lobby elected officials, thereby, ensuring that her "army's" reach extended to the steps of the capitol building.

"The bigger policy trends are shaped by legislation and policymakers," she says. The size of budgets and the laws about how children can be treated and what factors must be taken into account by the court are all determined at the state and national level.

Miami CAN organizes letter-writing and phone campaigns as well as personal visits to elected officials in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. Trooping from office to office over the course of one or two days, a dozen or so advocates make sure these "paper children" come alive for lawmakers too.

So what happens next September, when after 25 years of service, Goodman retires and sets sail with her husband again, this time for a year?

"I have every confidence that the new leadership will build on what we have established," Goodman asserts.

She's making sure of that. Even as she prepares to retire, Goodman is overseeing three new programs: a criminal court project, so that children whose family members are being tried on criminal charges will not have to duplicate the legal proceedings they go through in family court; a transitional youth project, to help teens aging out of the foster care system make a smoother transition to independence; and the kinship care project, to provide support for relatives such as grandparents, uncles, and aunts who care for neglected children, but may not be aware of the resources available to them.

"I've learned over the years that you can't save the world," Goodman says. "Bureaucratic systems are like dinosaurs. But I do believe that the social work profession has a huge impact on individuals."

Goodman's leadership of the guardian ad litem system has proven that, one child at a time.