As Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of this global media platform & Chief Encouragement Officer of our affiliated pro bono social impact enterprise; GoodWorks 360°, I was delighted to have the opportunity to get better acquainted with Amy Foster, Executive Director of GUARDIAN ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay. Her nonprofit’s mission is to advocate for and support children, young adults, and families impacted by abuse and neglect in Pinellas and Pasco Counties by collaborating with community partners and the Guardian ad Litem staff and volunteers who support the children they serve. They envision a community where every child and young adult is safe, secure, and thriving, and believe every child deserves to have a permanent family and be well prepared for their future beyond foster care. Learn more as you enjoy our inspiring Interview with Amy below ⤵︎
We’d like to hear about your professional journey before the Foundation.
I started my career as a substance abuse counselor in a maximum security facility for teen girls in Colorado. I quickly took off my rose-colored glasses and realized I wanted to expend my energy on prevention programs so I joined the professional team at Girl Scouts and designed curriculum for youth with disabilities and those living in low-income housing. After moving to Tampa, I joined Girl Scouts of West Central Florida and had a variety of roles. When I left Girl Scouts, I was the Director of Girl and Adult Leadership Development. I had received recognition for the work we were doing to involve girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics so I went on to work on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to bring promising practices to educators and establish collaborative groups across sectors in 43 states to address this issue. In addition to my role as the Executive Director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, I serve as a Council Member for the City of St. Petersburg. If I had to pick a common thread that weaves all of my work together, it is advocating for the underserved and most vulnerable populations.
Tell us about your nonprofit and the inspiration behind it.
The Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay provides advocacy and support to abused and neglected children. Volunteer Child Advocates are the child’s voice in court and the child’s best interest is their only interest. Children also need more help than the system can provide, so we help with anything they may need to thrive-that may be in the form of a bed, a car seat, tutoring, or football camp-we look at every child’s individual needs and try to provide that support.
What’s unique about your nonprofit?
There are lots of nonprofits in our area doing good work to help children and meet their needs. We are the only nonprofit that provides direct advocacy for them both in and outside of the courtroom-that may mean connecting them to the right therapy and provider, advocating for their needs in the classroom setting, or making sure their voice is heard in court. In addition, we advocate at the state level for laws to change to make things better for children while they are in foster care.
When did your nonprofit launch and what’s been your biggest challenge?
We launched in the current format 10 years ago. I’ve been the Executive Director for 5 years and I am the first executive they have had-so it really feels like we were just launched! The biggest challenge is running a lean nonprofit.
We are proud that 91 cents for every dollar donated goes to directly support our children, but that also limits capacity.
We have grown over the years from $40K to over $600K and 1 to 3 staff but there is a lot to do with our small but mighty staff.
Any noteworthy surprises or ‘A-ha’ Moments along the way?
I’d say my biggest A-ha moment along the way was a shift in mindset about the offending parents. I am a Volunteer Child Advocate myself and when I came to this work I believed parents who abused or neglected their children were “bad” and they didn’t “deserve” to get them back. I now understand a lot more about trauma and many of our parents were traumatized themselves. Every child no matter what their situation wants to go back to their parents. My best successes have been helping families reunify and helping them learn what they didn’t know along the way.
How would you describe your typical day?
No day is the same and in child welfare and any day can start with a “fire.” I should spend the majority of my time on fundraising and grant writing but it takes a lot of other things to make a nonprofit run. I could be doing accounting, writing a strategic plan, problem-solving an issue a child has, giving a presentation to a community group, or lugging in-kind donations around the office.
What about your “social impact/outcomes?”
We know that children heal best in relationships and Volunteer Child Advocates help them heal every day. These are the outcomes that have been proven across time for our program:
The Guardian ad Litem program saves tens of millions of dollars in federal and state government expenses. It is a research-based, effective program of trained, competent, court-appointed community volunteers stepping forward to deliver greater efficiency in government systems, and significantly improved outcomes for the abused and neglected children that they serve.
Better Outcomes Proven for Children
Low Guardian ad Litem (GAL) caseloads mean the courts can make better decisions for children. GAL volunteers handle just 1 or 2 cases at a time so that they can give each child’s case the sustained, personal attention he or she deserves.
Children with GAL volunteers spend less time in long-term foster care, experience fewer out of home placements, and have significantly improved educational performance.
Complex cases receive more attention so they can move forward in a timely way. Guardian ad Litem volunteers are typically appointed to the more complex children’s cases – those where there are multiple risk factors that must be fully understood in order to make a placement decision that will be in the child’s best interests.
More effective use of service dollars. Children with GAL volunteers and their families receive more court-ordered services and because of the volunteer’s detailed knowledge of the child’s circumstances, those services are more carefully targeted and monitored.
Volunteer child advocates save tens of millions of dollars in child welfare costs alone. Just 12% of children assigned a Guardian ad Litem volunteer remain in long-term foster care, compared to 16% of the general foster care population.
The child welfare system could not afford to provide a comparable level of advocacy through non-volunteer approaches. In 2013, nationwide volunteer child advocates contributed 5.75 million advocacy hours, equivalent to almost $290 million in taxpayer dollars if compensated for their service.
By reducing long-term placements, subsequent victimization, and reentry into the foster care system, the Guardian ad Litem program substantially reduces foster care costs.
75 to 1 return on investment. Federal funding for one staff supervisory position within a local Guardian ad Litem program supports up to 30 trained volunteer workers, assigned to as many as 75 children within a year.
What’s the next big thing/challenge for your nonprofit?
Child welfare in Florida is in crisis. There are more children coming into care and they are staying longer with more complex problems. We have more children in our system in Pinellas and Pasco Counties than in Miami-Dade County. It is a struggle to continue to meet the demand and we need the whole community to step up to help. We need more foster parents, we need more prevention programs to keep children stay safely in their home with their parents, and we need more people willing to be a voice of a child in court.
As a nonprofit leader, what’s non-negotiable for you?
Integrity. Transparency. Outcomes. If I don’t feel like I am making a difference then I am in the wrong place. It doesn’t mean the work can’t be challenging with hills to climb that need perseverance but I have seen too many nonprofits keep doing the same thing with the same results and we owe it those we serve to seek real impact.
How can our readers learn more about/help the Guardian ad Litem Foundation?
You can learn more about our work and how to become a Guardian ad Litem at GUARDIAN ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay. We are also on most social media platforms under Guardian ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay, including Facebook and Twitter . I can be reached directly at [email protected] or 727-464-6528. And of course we would welcome donations ⤵︎
BONUS QUESTION: What’s something interesting that most people wouldn’t know about you?
I once had to push a tourist bus out of the mud on the Serengeti while a cheetah was less than 20 feet away.