Dotty Johnson has seen promising situations, tragic ones and most everything in-between.
Fortunately, she says, most of the more than 200 guardian ad litem cases she has handled during the last 13 years have ended favorably.
Guardian ad litems are advocates for children and others – people with mental illnesses, dementia, etc. – who are deemed incapable of legally representing themselves. All of Johnson's cases have involved speaking for children. Her charges are central figures in disputed divorces, delinquents, victims of neglect, or where the parent is dependent on alcohol or drugs.
Since joining the program in 1999, Johnson has brought hope and wisdom to North Tampa children and teens in precarious circumstances.
From her home on Lake Carroll Way, the longtime area resident has worked on behalf of children not only from Carrollwood but from throughout the Tampa area. And she strives to recruit other adults for the program that has become as much a part of her life as it has for those she serves.
"It's the most rewarding, gratifying job I've ever had," says Johnson, who retired as a holistic physician's nurse in 1996. "I've gotten a wealth of education through the experiences."
Johnson and her husband, Bill, have been married 26 years. They live in a house he bought in Carrollwood in 1972, when the community off Dale Mabry Highway still was bordered by cypress swamps and swaths of undeveloped land that now are covered with houses and businesses.
Dotty Johnson, 78, still takes on more cases than most guardian volunteers, which helped lead program leaders to name her "guardian of the year" in 2006.
Valerie Mooney, Hillsborough County's guardian volunteer supervisor, says most of the roughly 500 volunteers take on two cases every 2 to 2 1/2 years. She calls Johnson's drive to take on as many as 10 at once amazing, and says Johnson tackles some of the most difficult cases, such as those involving the termination of parental rights.
"She's compassionate and very hardworking; she's always enthusiastic and has a wonderful relationship with the families" says Mooney, who has been with the program for nine years. "She's also a wonderful mentor for people who want to get involved in that area."
Reflecting in the living room of her home, Johnson recalls her first case: a 6-year-old Seffner boy who was living with his mentally disabled mother in deplorable conditions. Years later Johnson saw the boy; he had been adopted and was doing fine.
"Coming home after seeing that case, I knew I made the right choice by getting involved with guardian ad litem," she says.
Johnson says she has dealt with an array of familial disarray. In 2004, six siblings in foster care were returned to their unemployed mother, despite Johnson's hesitancy. Johnson says she became somewhat of a surrogate mother and grandmother to help with the transition.
"The mother still calls me twice a week," Johnson says. "It doesn't bother me. I worked hard for her to get a better education so she could keep her kids and work. It took her a while, but she made something of herself."
From his accounting office off Dale Mabry Highway, west of the couple's home, Bill Johnson says he is proud of all his wife has accomplished. The Johnsons raised two boys and two girls at the Lake Carroll Way house, where Dotty Johnson continues to work for the young and voiceless.
"She's really amazing," Mooney says. "She takes cases others won't take. She just reaches out and says, 'Bring 'em on!'"