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Bush: Kids in courts need guardians

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2003

TAMPA -- In the wake of scathing criticism about Florida's ability to care for its endangered children, Gov. Jeb Bush came to an east Tampa church Friday to underscore the need for more volunteers in the state's Guardian ad Litem program.

State law entitles children in custody to a volunteer, known as a guardian ad litem. The volunteers represent the children in court and act as a safeguard from overburdened caseworkers and a complex legal system.

But volunteers are in short supply. There are 44,000 children in some form of state custody and only enough volunteers to supervise about 10 percent of them.

"There needs to be somebody who thinks 100 percent of the time, 'What's in the best interest of the child?' " Bush told three dozen pastors who gathered at St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

Bush was joined by a half-dozen judges, including Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead.

"We can't provide a guardian ad litem to 4,000 children (in Hillsborough County)," Anstead said. "That's a disgrace."

The drive to increase ad litem volunteers is part of a raft of changes to Florida's child welfare services that Bush has promised. The effort is one of many recommendations by a panel he created last year.

The Rev. Mozella Mitchell of Love of Christ AME Zion Tabernacle in Brandon said only 22 percent of the children in Hillsborough who need one have a guardian ad litem. "The other 78 percent without a voice in court stand a greater chance of being lost in the system," he said.

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