By Kate Quesada
According to Valrico resident Marilyn Garcia, there are more than 1,500 children in foster care in Hillsborough County currently. Many have been removed from their families for reasons of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Garcia and the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) organization are working to find volunteers who are willing to be voices for these children.
GAL, a program with groups all over the country, started in Florida in 1985 and is made of volunteers who are appointed by the court to speak up for the best interest of children involved in dependency court cases.
“There are many people involved in helping judges determine the best solutions for families, from case managers to attorneys,” said Garcia, the Community Outreach Coordinator and Volunteer Recruiter for Hillsborough County GAL. “But GAL looks at the situation from the child’s perspective. We speak for the children who do not have a voice.”
GAL volunteers undergo 30 total hours of training in different phases, including a preliminary face-to-face interview, and volunteer on average 10 to 15 hours of time a month.
According to Garcia, the volunteer time is spent talking to the children and people who know them including their parents, teachers and foster families. GAL Volunteers then gather information related to the case from all their sources and go to court with the appointed attorney to advocate for the children as part of a team of experts in each case.
“GAL Volunteers do not need a specific background or any qualifications,” said Garcia who has lived in Valrico since 2002. “They just need a heart to love children and the ability to provide sound judgment for what is best for them.”
Currently there are only703 volunteer guardians in the county to help advocate for the thousands of children who come through the system and only those deemed the highest priorities receive Guardian volunteers. Garcia would love to see the number rise so that 100 percent of the children can be represented.
“There is a whole community of broken children that need a voice in our neighborhood,” she said.
For information, visit www.galtampa.org or call 272-5110.