Hundreds of children in Pasco, the abandoned, the neglected and the abused, need someone to be their voice and watch out for them.
The children are often taken from their families for a variety of reasons that could include abuse in the household, drug use by their parents or being alone after their parents have been hauled to jail.
Pasco County is looking for people to represent these children through the Guardian ad Litem program, which links volunteer adults with the youngsters while the state Department of Children and Families tries to mend their lives.
The guardians are appointed by a circuit judge to look out for the children as they go through Dependency Court, said Tabitha Lambert, assistant director of the 6th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program.
“The guardians are an independent voice for the child,” she said. “Their only concern is to look out for the child’s best interests.”
There is a large and growing need for the volunteers, she said.
Currently fewer than two of three children in Pasco who need guardians are represented. The 196 volunteers in the county represent 514 children. The program's staff workers handle the remaining 310.
That puts a strain on the workers and volunteer guardians can focus more time and attention on the children they represent. It helps speed their path through the court system and into a stable, safe environment, Lambert said.
Gene Goldberg, a retired marketing and management executive in the pharmaceutical business, has been a guardian for a bit more than a year and currently represents five children.
The New Port Richey resident decided it was a time in his life to give something back.
“I’ve had a relatively good life. I’m thankful for my family and I wanted to offer some help,” Goldberg said.
He didn’t start giving back in the guardian program. About five years ago, he and his wife took an interest in helping a boy who was about 7 at the time and his single mother.
“We became almost surrogate grandparents,” he said.
He spent time with the boy, taking him to driving ranges and for tennis and soccer.
Then he saw a television ad for the guardian program and volunteered.
The rewards have been beyond his expectations.
“The satisfaction has been more than I thought it would be. It’s been everything and more than I expected,” said the 74-year-old.
“I didn’t realize how much good it does and how many children who are in our system that need the advocacy,” he said.
Anyone over 21 can volunteer. They have to pass a criminal background and fingerprint check and go through an interview process, Lambert said.
Volunteers go through 30 hours of free class training, usually held twice a week over five weeks. Then new guardians typically work at first with an experienced case coordinator when a judge appoints them to represent a child.
Attorneys help provide legal guidance and handle the judicial aspect of the case, though guardians are often in court to watch out for the child.
Guardians do not represent children in criminal court proceedings, only the domestic court, Lambert said. The children are under state supervision or have been taken from their families.
“A lot of our cases are because of substance abuse,” Lambert said. Domestic violence is often another reason.
The amount of time each requires depends on the volunteer and the case.
“It can be difficult and rewarding,” she said.
Goldberg focuses on the rewarding part.
“The benefits to being a guardian ad litem volunteer are just tremendous. Doing good feels good and it makes you feel good,” he said.
To volunteer, call 727-834-3493 to speak with a community outreach coordinator or go to the State of Florida Guardian ad Litem Program site for Pasco and Pinellas counties.