ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - The foster care system is in overload and with more children coming in every day, there is a desperate need right now for Guardian ad Litem volunteers in Pinellas County.
Guardian ad Litem volunteers are advocates for foster children in court. When a child is removed from a home, it can happen quickly. There is a lot of chaos and confusion. The GALs serve as an objective voice for the child, someone in their corner. They have access to the court documents. They can contact the school. They can visit the home.
While the volunteers work hand in hand with the Department of Children and Families, they are a separate entity and can be a lookout for children who may even be in questionable foster care.
Mariela Ollsen, the Circuit Director for the Guardian ad Litem Program, and Karen Malo, the Community Outreach Coordinator, joined FOX 13's Good Day on Thursday morning to talk about how to get involved.
They need almost a thousand volunteers. Anyone can do it, with certain requirements. The goal, they said, is always reunification within a year. Guardians ad Litem are usually the best judge of whether that is truly in the best interest of the child. Frequently, it is not.
The central message during volunteer training is one cautioning them against judging or using their own personal bias. Just because a foster home is not their idea of the "best environment" or what their own childhood looked like doesn't mean it's not a good living environment.
They have to carefully weigh whether the children are better off than before. No matter what is going on in the home, no matter how bad, Malo said, the children will always want to be back home with their mom or dad.
"What we see as dysfunction is their normal," she explained.
To volunteer or to learn more, click over to the Guardian ad Litem website for Pinellas County,
www.herotoachild.org, or call 727-464-6528.