“It wouldn’t have been a happy story or a success story,” says Melissa Whitted, reflecting on what it would have been like for her and her husband to adopt their now seventeen-year-old twins without the help of legal aid.
Whitted, who works as a dispatcher for Lynx Transportation in Orlando, and her husband had raised their own four children, now all adults, when they were confronted with a family emergency in 2018. Her great niece and nephew were the victims of severe physical abuse at the hands of their mother.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t believe is happening to your family,” Whitted says.
After their mother was arrested for aggravated child abuse, the twins, Hope and Quincy, met Ronnie Syme, a guardian ad litem program staff attorney with Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association. Syme became their guardian ad litem in both their dependency case and Hope’s criminal case against their mother.
“She made a very difficult situation a positive situation,” Hope says. “One of my favorite things about Ronnie is how understanding she was about the situation. She was never like, ‘oh this is normal.’ She was always very compassionate.”
Syme’s work is funded through a Children’s Legal Services grant from the Foundation.
As the twins’ guardian ad litem, Syme advocated for a Chapter 39 Injunction against their mother’s paramour, who had neglected to report the abuse. She helped ensure that services were provided to the Whitteds and the children, and ultimately was successful in advocating for the termination of parental rights which led to the successful adoption of the twins by their great aunt and uncle.
In the criminal case, Syme was able to ensure that both the mother and the paramour were prosecuted for their actions.
“They are wonderful and respectful kids that had been through a lot,” Syme says. “I made sure that they felt safe and comfortable throughout the process and was able to help walk them through all aspects of that case. These children have bright futures.”
Now seniors in high school, Hope will be attending the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, and Quincy plans to attend the University of West Florida in the fall.
“We were some scared folks, we had no idea what was going on,” Quincy says. “Everything was outside of our control. I don’t know where we’d be right now, but we would not be as prosperous without Ronnie by our side.”