When volunteers for the Arizona Foster Care Review Board speak, the courts listen.

"They always say the FCRB is an extra set of eyes and ears for the courts, but I say it is an extra voice for the child," said Anne Hartnett, one of almost 100 volunteers countywide who serve on the board. "The laws and the courts have come around over the years to look at what is in the best interest of the child, and I am really happy to see that."

The Legislature established the board in 1978 to help prevent children in foster care from languishing in the system.

The board's mission is based on the belief that each child has a right to, and deserves, a permanent home that provides nurturing, love and protection.

Right now, two dozen boards convene every month in Pima County to assess and advise the juvenile court system of the adequacy of efforts and progress toward placing 2,500 foster children in permanent homes.

Volunteers spend a full day each month reviewing and discussing documents such as Child Protective Services and police records, psychiatric evaluations and medical reports, documentation from attorneys, and progress reports from social-services providers and other agencies.

Their goal is to obtain an independent, objective assessment of each child's situation within the first six months of the child being placed in foster care.

Board members perform reviews of each child in the system semiannually, serving as watchdogs over Child Protective Services, the behavioral health network, foster parents and biological parents.

The review boards also offer an informal forum in which parents, foster parents and other concerned parties can express themselves in an unrestrictive setting as opposed to the structured setting of a court hearing. Statements from people who attend are included in recommendations to the court.

"This citizen review panel provides an oversight process that is a diverse channel advocating for the best interest of children as well as families," said Sandy Guizzetti, district manager of the Foster Care Review Board. "Hopefully in most cases, they are advocating for the family to be reunited, but when that can't happen, they advocate for other permanency goals with child safety and well-being of paramount concern of the boards."

The board tries to ensure that children in the foster-care system are more than just a number, according to Soledad Zuzuarregui, a retired state employee who used her vacation time for many years to volunteer on the board. She is determined that children not be lost in the shuffle.

"We look at things with our eyes wide open and offer what is best for the children. They can't help themselves, so we come in and try to help them. I feel we are guardian angels for these children," she said.

Both Hartnett and Zuzuarregui have seen many changes in the board over the past three decades. The challenges society faces are reflected in the foster-care system, they said.

"When I started, most of the cases were straightforward abuse and neglect, and as time has evolved almost all of our cases involve drug or alcohol abuse," Hartnett said. "It is amazing the way drugs have taken over families and how it affects the children."

Hartnett encourages anyone interested in child welfare to consider volunteering.

"We are concerned about getting the cases moving faster and making decisions about permanency," Hartnett said. "That is what each child wants to know - where they will be and where they belong, since going from foster home to foster home is so traumatic."

How you can help

Become a volunteer for the Arizona Foster Care Review Board.

The board needs at least 30 volunteers to perform reviews for children in foster care in Pima County.

The Tucson region serves volunteers in Pima, Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, Santa Cruz, Pinal, Yuma and Gila counties.

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, pass a background check and fingerprint clearance and be willing to commit to a full day every month of case reviews and about eight hours of preparation time.

Volunteers receive free initial and ongoing training.

For more information, go to www.azcourts.gov/fcrb/Home.aspx or call outreach specialist Sharon Dalbey at 388-4300.

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net