In the past few months, we have seen and heard a lot about the influx of young people from Central American countries. Although this is a very serious problem, I would like to point out that we already have a very serious “children in need” situation here in Florida that is not getting the attention it deserves.
Although these children in need are in every county throughout the state, my specific focus is on Hillsborough County.
The problem I am referring to impacts all citizens in general and our families and children in particular. It affects our state, county and municipal budgets. It poses a significant burden on our court system. But most of all it affects innocent children. For safety reasons, these children have been separated from their parents. One or both parents could be the offender. Sometimes domestic violence has occurred. Other times, it is drug use by the parents leading to the neglect of the children. In some cases, the parent has a paramour who is abusing the children.
Often, it is a combination of these factors. There are many possible reasons for removing the children, at least temporarily.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we can have an enormous impact on this problem without adding significantly to our state, county and municipal budgets.
How is this possible? It can be done by ordinary people, like you and me, taking the time to volunteer as a guardian ad litem (GAL).
GALs are appointed by the court to advocate for children who have been removed from their homes because of allegations of abuse, abandonment or neglect. GALs develop a consistent relationship with the child, serve as educational advocates, help the child to experience and participate in everyday activities and, most importantly, make recommendations to the court to ensure a safe, caring, stable and permanent environment for the child.
The average time needed is 10 to 12 hours each month. As an advocate, a GAL visits the child every month, becomes familiar with her or her case and talks to everyone involved.
Today, the GAL Program supports more than 9,200 volunteers serving more than 23,000 children in Florida. GAL volunteers save the state $21,920,878 in salaries and benefits. It would take an additional 482 state employees to do this same work.
Children who are lucky enough to have a GAL will typically benefit because they perform better in school. They are 50 percent less likely to return to foster care and have fewer placements (in caregiver facilities). They receive more services, are more likely to be adopted, and spend less time in foster care.
Volunteer guardians are people who care and are willing to take the time and effort to help. They come from all walks of life. Some are still working or going to school. Others are retired and thinking about the best way to spend their retirement. I believe being a GAL is an excellent way to achieve that objective. No prior legal experience is required. GALs receive initial training and ongoing assistance to help them make a positive difference in the lives of the children.
Over 2,500 children in Hillsborough County need a caring person to stand up and be their voice in the courtroom and to advocate for them in our child welfare system. It is a wonderful program that not only helps children but also benefits each GAL volunteer. It provides a way for us to become productive members of society. By helping others, especially children who are innocent victims of abandonment, domestic violence or drug abuse, we grow as responsible citizens. It is a win-win scenario.
So the next time you hear a story on the news about an immigration issue, please remember our local “children in need.” I urge you to look at your responsibilities and find a few hours to be that person who is doing something constructive about an important problem in our community.
Let’s not expect the government to solve this. We just need to tap into the hearts of the many good people who will make fine GALs. These children need their own GAL. If this message resonates within you, you are one of those good people.
To find out more, visit www. galtampa.org or call 813-272-5110.
Jim O’Malley is a volunteer guardian ad litem in Hillsborough County’s 13th Judicial Circuit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 813-272-5110.