Good Neighbor Cynthia J. Shafer: A Real-life Guardian Angel

“The cases aren’t fun,” says Cynthia J. Shafer of her work as a volunteer children’s

advocate with the nonprofit Guardian Ad Litem program in Florida’s 20th Circuit Court. “You have children who’ve been neglected or abandoned and children who’ve been physically and sexually abused. You cry a lot.”

Shafer, a salesperson with Lahaina Realty Inc. in Fort Myers, spends up to 30 hours a week working with children who’ve been made wards of the court due to parental neglect or abuse.

Her job is to help determine the extent of the abuse, shepherd the children through the legal system, and assist in either returning them to their families or easing their way into foster care.

“You serve as the voice of the child and the eyes and ears of the judge,” says Shafer.

Guardians such as Shafer make a real difference in the lives of children. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently announced plans to expand Guardian Ad Litem to help relieve Florida’s beleaguered Department of Children and Families.

Shafer has a degree in physical oceanography and worked for years doing water quality studies for NASA. She got her real estate license in 1993. The job, she says, is a needed balance to her volunteer work. “It reminds me that there are good things in life,” she says. “Not everything is traumatic.”

That’s critical, considering that Shafer’s volunteer work takes her into some of the grimmest, most deprived neighborhoods. “You don’t know what you’re going to walk into,” she says. “You learn to deal with situations as they are, not as you want them to be.”

Over the last eight years, Shafer has advocated for about 15 children, ranging in age from two months up to seven years. Some of the cases are resolved within a few months; others go on for many years.

“The children see you on a consistent basis, sometimes more than they see their parents,” Shafer says. “They get to know you and trust you. You have to ask them a lot of difficult questions, including who they want to live with.”

When Shafer takes on a case—she has between two and seven children at a time—the first step is to consult with attorneys and social workers; next, she gets to know the children and their parents. She meets with the children at their homes and also arranges outings ranging from trips to the mall to movies and baseball games.

The important thing, she says, is establishing trust. “You never ask the children what happened,” she says. “You never talk directly about the abuse. But by spending time with them and talking to them, you find out what happened.”

One of her favorite techniques is to bring up incidents from her own childhood. “If I’m dealing with a physically abused child, I’ll bring a Nerf ball to our meeting and ask the child to play catch. While we’re playing, I’ll let him or her accidentally hit me and I’ll say something about how I got hit in the eye with a baseball when I was a kid and my whole face turned black and blue. That breaks the ice,” she explains. “At that point, kids will roll up their sleeves and say, ‘Let me tell you about what happened to me last night.’ ”

In the early ’90s, Shafer served on a steering committee that was responsible for revamping and streamlining the way children’s cases are handled by the court. More recently, she started a program—with the help of other area REALTORS®—that collects and redistributes used furniture to foster parents.

“A lot of grandparents are willing to take in their grandkids, but they’re on fixed incomes and can’t afford a bed,” she says. “The law says you can’t have a foster child unless you have a bed for him or her.”

Shafer’s official involvement ends when a child has been returned to his or her family or placed in foster care and the court is satisfied that the conditions that led to the abuse have been resolved. Contact after that is minimal. Years later, she sometimes receives thank-you letters from kids—but it’s not children’s gratitude that drives her. It’s her own desire to help society’s most vulnerable citizens.

“Cynthia has been my idol since I met her,” says Jayne Peterson, a salesperson with SCJ Commercial Realty Inc. in Fort Myers and president of the Fort Myers Women’s Council of REALTORS®. “She has a full career in real estate but schedules her work so that she can spend quality time on her favorite charities. She’s an inspiration for all of us.”

How to contact Cynthia Shafer

Cynthia J. Shafer, LTG
Lahaina Realty, Inc.
6035 Estero Blvd.
Fort Myers Beach, FL 33908
tel: 239/463-8865, x12
fax: 239/263-5617

Guardian Ad Litem Program
1700 Monroe Street
Fort Myers, FL 33901
tel: 239/334-2146