Palm Beach County, FL, August 28, 2020 --(PR.com)-- Michelle Canaday, Circuit Director for the 15th Judicial District of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, is the perfect example of what happens when someone speaks words of life and encouragement to a child. Canaday, who is the product of the Wisconsin foster care system, remembers a childhood where the overarching expectation for girls was that they become wives and mothers. At 11 years old, she had a chance interaction over a game of cribbage with a distant male family member who we will call John and who had just completed law school. Canaday reflects, “What you say to children can impact them in such a way that it changes the trajectory of their life.” During their game, John said to her, “You’re a really smart girl. You should consider going to college and doing something with your life.” Canaday held on to that conversation and used it as fuel to propel herself forward through multiple trials.
Canaday oversees the Palm Beach County Guardian ad Litem Program, a corps of greater than 600 volunteer child advocates who represent, in court, the best interests of children involved in abuse, abandonment, and neglect cases. At any given time, our county has between 1,500 and 1,700 children whose lives, through no fault of their own, are hanging in the balance as they attend court proceedings where the fates of their parents, themselves, and in many cases, their siblings are to be determined. The process usually begins with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) alerted to a suspicion of abuse or neglect. DCF sends an investigator who assesses the situation and, if the claims are found to hold merit, intervention is determined, up to and including removing the child or children from the home for their own safety. A dependency court case is opened where each party’s interest – except those of the children - are represented by a cadre of attorneys. Guardians ad Litem are so crucial because they are assigned to represent the best interests of the children involved in these cases and serve as the judge’s set of community eyes and ears focused only on the children. “I think destiny led me to this work and every one of my life experiences, though difficult at the time, served as preparation,” says Canaday who has been at the helm for the past five years.
By all accounts, Canaday should not be the person she is today. As a youngster, her family life proved challenging at best and she was placed in the foster care system at the age of 15. Foster care is a temporary living situation for children whose parents cannot take care of them and whose need for care has been brought to the attention of a local child welfare agency. A teen mom who graduated high school at 16 just before giving birth to her first child, with little support from her daughter’s father, Canaday remained determined to do the most with her life. Hanging on to that distant conversation with John so many years prior, Canaday applied for entrance to the local community college. Because of her age, she needed special clearance from the dean of the school as 18 was the required age for acceptance. Not to be dissuaded, Canaday filed the appropriate appeals and was accepted to the school. She worked, took care of her daughter, and attended classes, continuing always to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Again, John’s words continued to echo in her head through each obstacle.
Next, she was presented with the dreaded financial aid packet. “This was thirty plus years ago, so there was no FAFSA online, internet, and everything at your fingertips. I was handed a huge packet to be completed by hand. And the worst part was that I need financial information from my parents,” recalls Canaday. “Hello! I do not have parents.” Worse was there was little assistance offered by the school’s financial aid office. Canaday set about tracking down her mother who surprised her by providing the documents necessary to fully – and painfully - complete the application which thankfully aided in securing a much-needed Pell Grant. She was off and running.
It was towards the end of her first semester that Canaday began to feel the compounded pressures of adulthood, parenthood, and college-life. Canaday also found she was pregnant with her second child. Because she was already struggling with balancing all the components of her life and found she would have to postpone completing school until she could see a way forward.
When asked if, when faced with what seemed insurmountable odds, she maintained faith that she would make it through Canaday says, “I had dropped out of school and knew it would take seven years for me to complete college, then law school and that seemed impossible. I figured I would go to paralegal school because I could make money even though it wasn’t really what I wanted. I was speaking with a treasured confidante who pointed out to me that seven years would pass regardless of what I was doing and suggested I look at the larger picture; I could settle or I could put in the time and the work and just go big.” Canaday went huge. She credits her daughter, Nicki, with corralling the younger children in the evenings while she attended classes. “I cooked dinner and she made sure everyone ate and completed homework. We were really a team,” says Canaday. “I could not have done it without her.” As Canaday talks about her children, you can hear the adoration in her voice, and you can clearly see that they served as her "why."
Canaday interned at the Attorney General’s Office in Broward County and then accepted a position with Children’s Legal Services where she served as the voice for children involved in both justice and civil welfare proceedings. She worked in that capacity for 12 years, introducing her to all facets of the child advocacy and cementing her desire to do more to ensure children had every opportunity to thrive. When Canaday was initially approached about the Palm Beach County Guardian ad Litem Circuit Director position, she declined because she felt that she could better serve children in the courtroom, as a daily, vocal advocate, ensuring their interests were represented, rights maintained, and justice served. She changed her mind after several conversations with her husband and number one cheerleader, David Kinigson, who encouraged her to consider that although she would miss direct courtroom advocacy, as the Circuit Director she could influence outcomes for thousands of children through program and case oversight. “David is an amazing support. He knows my heart and is absolutely the wind beneath my wings,” says Canaday, who has been the Circuit Director for five years and could not be happier or more fulfilled in her work.
So, what ever happened to John, the cribbage partner turned unknowing inspiration? After completing law school and securing a position with Children’s Legal Services, Canaday decided to seek out John. She could not find him on Facebook, so she checked LinkedIn and was able to connect with him. She sent him a message thanking him for his kind words over the cribbage board so many years earlier and shared with him how that one conversation, that one small interaction, made such a profound difference in her life. She recalls him being extremely humbled by her acknowledgement and happy that he had such a direct impact on her. John currently serves as a regional attorney for a New England child advocacy agency.
Today, Canaday is happily married to her wonderful husband David, her children Nicki, Dustin, and Dakota are in their 30’s and though none of her children followed her footsteps in the legal profession, each is tremendously successful in their chosen field. She is also the grandmother of three boys, ages 18, 14, and 3, and has achieved a balance and an abundance she only dreamed about. “I thought this life was reserved for other people.”
Although Canaday continues to be shocked by the horrors parents inflict upon their children, she remains “...more encouraged by the heart and drive of those who choose to work in child advocacy.” What continues to drive Canaday? “At the end of each day, I want to know that my work has made someone else’s life better.”
About Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County
Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County, Inc. is the exclusive 501(c)(3) fundraising arm for the Guardian ad Litem Program of Palm Beach County, Florida. We champion best-interest child advocacy through the recruitment, training, and retention of court-appointed volunteer child advocates. These “guardian angels” are committed solely to each child’s emotional, educational, and physical well-being throughout dependency court proceedings as the only 100% objective voice. Through effective advocacy the cycles of abuse, violence, and crime are being broken one child at a time, and children’s futures are being rewritten.
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