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Serious need for child advocates across bay area

Posted at 6:21 PM, Feb 04, 2016
There are thousands of kids -- victims of abuse and neglect -- ripped from their homes with no one to speak for them in court. 
 
Local officials say that’s the case in Tampa Bay and there aren’t enough people to help. 
 
Those people are known as court appointed special advocates or guardians ad litem.
 
They’re volunteers who help kids navigate the legal system, spend time with the child and work with caregivers and teachers to provide resources and anything else needed in the child’s best interest. 
 
Edgar Hernandez says he wouldn’t be who he is today if it weren’t for a neighbor teaching him to read, write and serve as a mentor. 
 
“I wanted to give back because someone gave to me and I was able to make it,” said Hernandez. 
 
Now he volunteers as a Guardian Ad Litem in Hernando County.  He serves as the only voice for children victim to abuse and neglect in court. 
 
Many of these kids are taken from their homes and end up in foster care. 
 
In Hernando, Citrus, Lake, Sumter and Marion Counties there are nearly 1,600 children who have been removed from their homes, but only enough volunteers to speak for about 84% of them. 
 
“Our goal is 100% representation because 100% of the kids need representation in court,” said Doug FeldKamp, Child Advocacy Manager. 
 
It’s not just a local issue, it's statewide.
 
In Hillsborough County, there are more than 3,100 kids in foster care. T
 
he Guardian Ad Litem program is only appointed to 1,800 of those children, but there are only 660 volunteers which means more than 1,000 volunteers are needed.   
 
In Pasco and Pinellas Counties 2,400 kids are in foster care, but there are only enough volunteers to advocate for about 70% of them. 
 
In Manatee and Sarasota counties, more than 100 volunteers are needed to help more than 1,200 children in foster care there. 
 
 “Our goal is make sure that child is safe, make sure that child gets the services they need. counseling, medical, dental and they need to be heard," said FeldKamp.
 
“They let the court know what is in the best interest of that child,” said Circuit  5 Director of Recruitment, Diana Hollwedel. 
 
Hollwedel says a majority of these kids have parents addicted to drugs, but Guardians Ad Litems can help these kids out that situation and turn their lives around. Hernandez says that’s the reward he lives for. 
 
Right now lawmakers are considering giving the Guardians Ad Litem program more than $2.5 million to pay for things like rehab and counseling for the kids and their families. That money wouldn’t make the Guardian Ad Litem position a paid one, it’s meant for people who truly have a passion for kids. 
 
If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer in Hernando County contact Diana Hollwedel at 352-812-6971 or email diana.hollwedel@gal.fl.gov
 
To find out about opportunities in your area visit www.guardianadlitem.org