Interview with Amy Foster, Executive Director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay

Little blonde girl in court room peering over pew.

In Florida’s Pinellas and Pasco Counties, there are over 3000 children in foster care, and over 100 more come into care every month. The mission of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay is to provide advocacy and support for abused, abandoned, or neglected children in the Pinellas and Pasco County area. “In many cases, foster children need more support than the system can provide,” says the Foundation’s Executive Director, Amy Foster “Our vision is a world where every child has a safe and permanent home and the opportunity to thrive.”

What is the Guardian ad Litem Foundation?

The Guardian ad Litem Foundation began in 1989. At that time, the organization was wholly run by volunteers.  As the program expanded to address the needs of more children, an executive director was needed; Amy took on the role in 2014.

When Aftermath met with Amy, we asked her to describe what the Guardian ad Litem Foundation does. “We use our voices to advocate for children,” she said. “We act as a connector by identifying the needs of the children in foster care and informing the court to make sure the children get what they need.”

Children enter foster care when there is a disturbance within their family – abuse, neglect, or lack of a parent; a child may remain in the program until they age out, depending on the State. But unlike other states, Florida law requires that a foundation to support children in foster care and provide for their needs. “We are here to backfill for what the state can’t cover,” Amy adds.

Most states prefer to place a child with an extended family member over a foster family. When a child is placed with extended family, it may be difficult financially because family members don’t receive a foster care stipend since they are family. Some families can provide a home for the child, but they can’t help the child financially with additional costs such as extra-curricular programs, specialized tutoring, or clothing. The Guardian ad Litem Foundation helps in this regard.

Who are the Guardians?

Volunteers assist children by visiting the home where the child is living to ensure they have a safe placement. The volunteer often works with the child’s case manager or social worker. Every child has a case manager and case managers are overloaded. The turnover rate in the field of child services is 120%. Every time a case manager changes, it can push back a child’s case by six months.

In contrast, a guardian stays with the case from the beginning to end. A parent has a year to complete the case plan, but it can be extended depending on the specifics of the case. Furthermore, a Guardian only deals with one case at a time. In this way, Guardians may help to prevent situations where a child’s case could otherwise be overlooked.

Guardian ad Litem volunteers also work directly with the legal system to assist the child through the legal process. Amy explained: “Volunteers are paired with an attorney to do all official court proceedings. The attorneys that help us are state-appointed.”

The requirements to become a volunteer are that a person must be at least 21 years old and complete the required training classes. Afterward, a mentor works with each volunteer to help them develop the additional skills needed to take on their critical role. For more information on becoming a volunteer, visit Guardian ad Litem’s volunteer page.

Goals and Funding

Amy states that the immediate goal of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation is to provide every child a voice in court. However, the organization is struggling to keep up with the increasing need for services. “Right now there are 1200 children who don’t have a volunteer, which is up 17% from last year,” said Amy.  The number of children entering foster care in Florida has risen each year since 2015, largely due to a lack of funding for mental health programs and the opioid crisis. Florida is 50th in the nation for mental health support.

To combat this, the Foundation has conducted surveys to better understand how to retain volunteers. Amy explains that the information will be used to build a more streamlined program. The organization also raises awareness about the Foundation’s work through outreach and discussion, like this blog spotlight.

As a small organization, Amy says she is proud that the Foundation is able to keep overhead low. “91 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to the children. We also receive individual donations and corporate funding, and we raise money through our annual fundraiser, the Super Hero 5K.

The cost to train and support each volunteer is $1,000. The annual expenditure for each child averages$300. This money goes toward academics, extra circular activities, and basic necessities like clothing. “When a child is placed into the foster system with nothing but the clothing on their back, we’re there to help. The State provides room and board for children, but does not cover extra costs. You may think that $300 isn’t going to do much of a difference it really only takes $300 to get a child on track and make a huge impact in their lives,” Amy said.

The Difference $300 Makes

During the interview, Amy gave a personal account of how Guardians and $300 can make a critical difference in a child’s life:

“I adopted my daughter out of foster care. She was in the system from age 2 to age 18. Her senior year in high school, she learned she was not going to graduate because she couldn’t pass the FCAT, but she did well on the ACT. As a Guardian, I advocated for her school to take her ACT score in place of her FCAT score; the $300 was then used to enroll her in a boot camp to increase her FCAT score, enabling her to graduate.”

“I’ve known many children who have had a lot of anger from being taken away from their homes. We signed them up for football and martial arts classes which helped them release their anger in constructive ways. Since they were able to cope with their situations, they were able to grow and succeed.

Aftermath Supports programs like Guardian ad Litem

Guardian ad Litem volunteers stand in the gap for Florida’s most vulnerable citizens; the Guardian ad Litem Foundation ensures that the basic rights and needs of every child in the program are met. When a child’s future hangs in the balance, the Guardian ad Litem Foundation is there. To donate to the foundation, visit the Guardian ad Litem website.

Click here to learn more about Guardian ad Litem programs in your area.

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