Windermere resident Meena Jotwani gives back by volunteering as a certified guardian ad litem.
When Meena Jotwani first learned about the Guardian ad Litem Program from a friend, she was inspired. Through the program, volunteers donate their time advocating for the rights and best interests of children who are involved in court proceedings, usually as a result of alleged abuse or neglect. “I felt it was a great way for me to give something back of myself and be involved with children,” she said.
Jotwani, a Windermere resident, became a certified guardian ad litem in September 2008, following an application process, 30 hours of certification training, and a background check.
“Once a child comes into care, the court appoints a guardian ad litem to their case,” Jotwani said. “We are assigned to look out for them, making sure all their needs are being met. We advocate for a variety of services,
from tutoring to psychological counseling. Our goal is to ensure that the child ends up in a permanent home, free of abuse and neglect. A judge ultimately makes a decision in the permanent placement of the children, but takes the guardian ad litem’s recommendation into consideration. Our position in the court is to speak on behalf of the child’s best interest and express the child’s requests to the judge.”
Being a guardian ad litem opened Jotwani’s eyes to a world she has never known.
“Prior to getting involved, I had no idea that there were so many families out there struggling,” she said. “It seems most cases I’ve dealt with have involved drugs. I’ve learned how easily it is for people to become addicted to drugs. It devastates their lives and especially the lives of their children.” In addition to the initial training, volunteers also participate in six hours of annual re-certification training. Typically, a volunteer devotes about 10 hours per month to the program. Jotwani works full time in hospitality sales and is still able to find time for the program. Though at times the volunteer work can be challenging, she is encouraged by the results.
“Being a guardian ad litem is extremely rewarding,” she said. “Initially, it can be very hard on the child. They’ve been pulled out of an environment they have grown comfortable with, even though there is some form of abuse involved. Through the proper placement of the Guardian ad Litem Program, I have seen children be placed in safe and loving homes, either with their parents, other family members or a foster family. It is humbling to know that you are part of a process and decision that has that much effect on someone’s life.”
During her time with the program, Jotwani has proven herself to be an exemplary guardian ad litem.
“Meena is dedicated to the children she represents,” said Lisa Chilano, assistant director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program. “She sees them regularly and forms relationships with them. By having this connection, she is able to make well thought-out and informed decisions, taking all factors into account, including the bonds the children have formed with adults in their lives.”
Training and Case Coordinator Tamera Tajrishi added, “[Meena] has the desire to be involved as a guardian ad litem to ensure those professionals in the dependency court never forget who their decisions are impacting.”
For Jotwani, one of the highlights of the program has been meeting the foster families.
“They have such big hearts,” she said. “It is encouraging to know there are so many good people out there.
“Still, there are close to 30,000 children in care in the state of Florida. Unfortunately, there are approximately 7,500 children that are still in need of a guardian ad litem.”
Jotwani strongly encourages others to look into volunteering for the program, as the rewards far outweigh any obstacles.
“At times you may feel like you are just one person in this world, but you can really make a world of difference in one child’s life,” she said. “If these children are not properly looked after, they may grow up to be a problem in society, repeating the cycles of abuse that they came from. You are not just working toward the betterment of one child, but for the whole community, as well.”
For more information about the Guardian ad Litem Program, call 850-922-7213 or visit www.guardianadlitem.org on the Web.
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