Janis Fontaine

Woman is a passionate voice for children facing often-difficult court proceedings in Palm Beach County

Kristen Solomon is the executive director of the Guardian Ad Litem program in Palm Beach County. She started as a volunteer herself.

By Janis Fontaine, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sometimes, the best thing a parent can do for a child is to let go.

Kristen Solomon knows this. She’s been at the table, representing the child, when a biological mother signs the papers that relinquish her parental rights.

“We know,” Solomon says, “that love is not always enough.”

Solomon leads the local guardians ad litem — trained volunteers appointed to protect a child’s rights in court.

At just 30, the Guardians Ad Litem circuit director for the 15th Judicial District oversees the work of nearly 30 staff members and more than 400 volunteers.

This puts her in the middle of heartbreaking court cases involving children — sometimes they are the victims, sometimes they are the accused. In a sense, Solomon and other guardians ad litem are the parents children deserved and didn’t have.

“I don’t know another person like her,” says Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem program. “She just cares so much. She’s a natural-born leader. I’m so excited for the children in Palm Beach County that they have her.”

Solomon started standing up for children as a GAL volunteer while she was in law school at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. But her interest in the perils of young offenders stirred earlier, while she was a sophomore at the University of Florida, and she went on a field trip to a detention center in Ocala.

“I met with kids who were being treated for delinquent behavior. I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ That summer I came home (to Palm Beach County) and interned at the public defender’s office. I worked with a felony investigator, and I spent a lot of time at the county jail on Gun Club,” she says.

Many of the inmates were kids almost her same age.

“Here I was, a double-major graduating early, and I thought, these are my peers, theoretically. But they were never led in the right direction. They had no support system. I’m a believer that it takes a village to raise a child, and this village, my community, had failed.”

Statistics show most prison inmates were once children in the dependency system — abused, abandoned or neglected. “I felt like I got there too late to help them,” Solomon says. “I felt if I provided that village, I could keep them out of Gun Club.”

She soon got her chance.

Solomon’s first GAL kid was taken from his drug-addicted mother at birth. “When you are born and spend weeks in the hospital withdrawing from drugs because you spent your whole time in utero addicted to drugs, it’s one of the hardest things to have an infant go through,” Solomon said.

“They’re often born premature, and now they’re going through withdrawal. It can take weeks to step them down from the drugs.”

And that’s usually just the beginning of the challenges the child will face.

“We never know until the child starts hitting – or missing — those milestones whether there are long-term effects on their speech or motor skills.”

It makes her angry, but Solomon knows that anger doesn’t help.

“If you get angry, it clouds your judgment and doesn’t allow you to be open-minded. You can’t judge. I tell my volunteers, ‘When you come into the GAL world, whatever opinions you have, you need to check them at the door.’ To be true and fair to this child you have to be open and honest and fully available to listen to the parent’s side of the story,” she says. “That’s the only way you can help this child.”

That’s the mature thing to do — and Solomon has been recognized for having a maturity beyond her years.

“Even though she’s young, she’s got the disposition to interact with staff, parents, attorneys, judges and kids,” Abramowitz said. “The job doesn’t pay a lot, and she could make a lot more money, but she’s happy doing what she’s doing. There’s only one word I can think of to describe her: Amazing.”

Solomon and her husband, Ferris, a Legal Aid attorney specializing in elder law, welcomed their first child, daughter McKenna, in August 2011.

It’s no surprise that family comes first. She and her husband carpool from their home in Jupiter, which gives them a little more family time. And unless it’s an emergency, work phone calls stop at 7 p.m.

Having a child has made Solomon even more aware of how important her job is — as the parent surrogate for thousands of local children.

“When we have to remove a child from a parent, these children are being taken from everything that’s familiar, and even if it’s a horrible environment, it’s what the child knows,” Solomon says. “When you meet a family, you say, ‘I’m here to represent the best interest of your child and make sure they get everything they need.’ We don’t say, ‘Why did you do drugs?’ or ‘Why did you hit your wife?’ We’re going to do what’s best for this child, together.”

Many times, the right road is a hard road.

“You never know where life is going to take you, or what impact you might have on someone, or what impact they may have on you. You have to be brave. We’re put into each other’s lives for a reason.”

Do you want to stand up for children’s rights?

Palm Beach County’s Guardians Ad Litem program needs volunteers willing to represent children’s rights in court proceedings. Training is provided. If you’re interested in helping a child by becoming a guardian ad litem, or would like to help with staff support, call 561-355-2773.

Show your support: Networking for a Cause benefits Speak Up! For Kids of Palm Beach County, which supports the Palm Beach County Guardian ad Litem Program, from 5-7 p.m. Thursday at the Wine Dive, 319 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. $10 donation buys appetizers. Drinks specials. Info: www.galpbc.org; www.speakupforkidspbc.org