By Tabitha Lambert, Guardian ad Litem Circuit Director

The places, faces and some circumstances vary, but so many of the details are the same. This is the beginning of one foster child’s story. By volunteering a few hours a month, you can be part of the ending for another child’s story as a Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Child Advocate.

Melissa, the oldest of four children, told her story this way: “For the first 12 years of my life, I was never allowed to be a child. My mother would trade the government assistance that was intended for our food, diapers, clothing and bills for alcohol and drugs. I resorted to stealing and stashing food stamps, which I would take to a nearby grocery store and ask the clerk to help me maximize the amount of food I could purchase. I was desperate to find help. I approached my dance team coach and confessed the abuse. She was able to convince my mother to let us stay with an aunt and uncle temporarily. Shortly after, we entered the dependency system.”

“My siblings and I lived in limbo for five long years, as my aunt and uncle fought to gain permanent custody of us,” she continued. “After at least two reunification plans failed, my mother’s rights were severed and my aunt and uncle adopted us.”

Melissa remembers that one thing truly helped get her through this difficult period: her Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Child Advocate. “[She] was the only one we could turn to for answers. She tried to comfort us and guide us through the process. She was a constant in our lives and our voice in the courtroom. She showed me that while my childhood may have been taken away, I was in control of what I would do with the rest of my life.”

Hillsborough County has more children in the dependency system than any other part of the state. A Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Child Advocate will get to know a child that has been abused, abandoned or neglected and become a consistent figure for them while they are part of the dependency system. Children with a court-appointed special advocate do better in school, receive more services and are more likely to be adopted than those without.

“Just a few hours a month can make a lifetime of difference for a child,” said Guardian ad Litem 13th Circuit Director Tabitha Lambert. “These children need to know a consistent, caring adult is there for them. No child should have to navigate a complicated system alone. A Volunteer Child Advocate can be the champion a child needs and can help change a child’s future.”

Information sessions are held weekly in various locations. To find dates and times and learn more about the Guardian ad Litem program of Hillsborough County, visit www.galtampa.org or 272-5110.