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    In foster system, they're a commodity

    With a shortage of advocates for children in foster care, the guardian ad litem program seeks more volunteers to help.

    By WAYNE WASHINGTON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


    TAMPA -- Rosa Lombardi didn't have a lot of time to talk Tuesday.

    The 65-year-old grandmother was heading to court. Again.

    But Lombardi hadn't broken any law. She was making sure the law protects some of the state's most vulnerable children, those in its crowded foster care system.

    Lombardi is a volunteer in the 13th Judicial Circuit's guardian ad litem program, which attempts to match vulnerable children in Hillsborough County with an adult who would protect their interests in court hearings and in meetings with the state Department of Children and Families.

    The program, broken down into judicial circuits, is critically short of volunteers.

    Molly Langer, program director in Hillsborough, said only 196 guardians serve 580 children in the 13th Judicial Circuit.

    Langer said the program needs about 400 more volunteers.

    The shortage also is severe in the 6th Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties. There, 250 guardians serve 750 children, said Sean Cadigan, the Pinellas-Pasco program director.

    "We need about twice as many as we have now," Cadigan said.

    The severe shortage isn't new, but it isn't getting better, either.

    Officials in the 6th and 13th circuits put out the word for more volunteers last fall. Scores signed up but much more help is needed.

    "Part of it is getting the word out," Cadigan said.

    Officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties say the urgent need for program volunteers stems from the passage of the Kayla McKean Act, named after a 6-year-old girl who was stomped and beaten to death by her father in Clermont during Thanksgiving weekend in 1998.

    The state is quick to remove children from homes it believes are abusive, child welfare advocates say. That decreases the likelihood of abuse, but it also increases the number of children in foster care. And that creates more need for people to volunteer for guardian ad litem programs.

    Strictly speaking, volunteers have a simple job. They are to serve as advocates for children in foster care. If a judge rules that the Department of Children and Families should offer counseling or other special services, they make sure the child gets those services. If a child has languished too long in foster care when family reunification is in its best interests, that's what the volunteer pushes for.

    Being a guardian ad litem, Cadigan said, does not require volunteers to house children.

    Volunteers attend meetings with the department. They attend court hearings. They visit the children assigned to them at least once a month.

    It is not an easy task, said Lombardi, who has participated in the program for 14 years. Usually, though, it is a rewarding one.

    "I feel guardians do make a difference in the lives of these children," she said.

    To volunteer

    An hourlong meeting about the Hillsborough guardian ad litem program will be held at 7 tonight at Borders bookstore on S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. A similar meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater. To participate in the program, a person must be at least 19, submit to a criminal history check and complete a 30-hour training course. For information, call (888) 464-8876.

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    From the Times state desk