Advocates urge legislators to empower guardians as 'Nubia's legacy'
George Riggs came to the Capitol Wednesday to push the panic button on Florida’s foster care system.
As a kid growing up in Virginia, Riggs spent three years in foster care before he was adopted. Now, as a successful Miami investment banker with an expertise in mergers and acquisitions, he considers himself a foster success.
But Florida’s system “relies on luck,” he told a crowd of advocates at a rally outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday. “I was lucky. Nubia was not.”
His reference was to Nubia Barahona, the 10-year-old foster child who was found dead in Palm Beach County in the flatbed of her adoptive father’s truck. Riggs is now a member of the board of directors of the Voices for Children Foundation, a Miami non-profit that provides guardian ad litem advocates for abused children and those in foster care.
The advocates want lawmakers to protect the funding of their program, which relies on volunteers to advocate on behalf of children in the state’s protective custody. “In the last 10 years, there have been three panels and three sets of recommendations following horrific acts of cruelty upon children,’’ he said. “I believe that Nubia's legacy must be that we empower those guardians so that they are taken very seriously every time a kid is threatened."
Florida’s guardian ad litem program serves 23,339 children today but it falls short of the need. There are 30,831 children under court supervision in Florida and more volunteers and advocates are needed, organizers say.
Since the death of Nubia, and the story of her brother, Victor, who was found doused in chemicals in the same truck, the Miami-Dade guardian ad litem office had twice the number of volunteers sign up for the April training session, the largest class ever, Riggs said. “People are volunteering. They aren’t doing it for the money. They are doing it for love – for love of the children. This is Nubia’s real legacy,’’ he said.
Advocates are asking the legislature for $1 million to cover all the kids in need of care. State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, recognized the group and called guardian ad litems the front line of defense for children in state care. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, told a House budget committee that when he adopted a child in foster care, the guardian ad litem on his case played a crucial role.