MANATEE -- Vicky is not her real name.
Her real name is kept secret by the 12th Judicial Circuit in Manatee County, which is bound to protect the identity of every child that enters its guardian ad litem program.
But like 450 other children who are pulled out of abusive Manatee County homes annually to be placed in safe situations, Vicky was appointed a guardian ad litem volunteer to be that one adult looking out for her best interests as well as a friend and confidant, said Cate Thorp, supervisor of Manatee County's 180 guardian ad litem volunteers.
Vicky's story, which is what local officials call it, is perhaps one reason why Florida's statewide guardian ad litem program was recently honored with a prestigious National Angels in Adoption Award, conferred by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, said Pam Hindman, director of the guardian ad litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit.
"Florida has an exemplary program," Hindman said. "We are volunteer-based. To show the strength of guardian ad litem in Florida, we have 425 volunteers in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto alone who are court-appointed when a child is removed from the home. Our volunteers are with these children when they are at the time of most distress in their lives and our volunteers are devoted."
The institute honors more than 150 angels nationwide for excellence in finding forever families for children in the foster care system, Hineman added.
Vicky's story began when she was appointed in 2007 at age 10 to her Manatee guardian ad litem, Sandra Rhodes.
She and her siblings were separated at the time, Thorp said.
Thorp recalls that Vicky, due to the extreme insecurity, distress and anxiety in her life, looked "catatonic."
Vicky spent two and a half years with Rhodes, whom she came to call grandma, Thorp said.
Vicky was officially adopted by a family from northern Florida in July.
"When Vicky was 10 we tried to place her with family members in Manatee County first," Thorp said. "We worked side by side with case managers with the Manatee County Safe Children's Coalition. We tried to find anyone known to the child. But every time, Vicky's relatives couldn't pass background checks."
Vicky was placed in Manatee foster homes seven or eight times, but her behavior led those families to say they couldn't tolerate her, Thorp said.
"Vicky was finally placed on the Heart Gallery, which is run by the Florida Safe Children Coalition," Thorp said.
"A family came forward, who were friends of the family that adopted her brother. To the family's credit, they endured Vicky's suicidal attempts and the myriad of psychotropic drugs she was on."
Through all of Vicky's behavior, trials and tribulations, Rhodes never lost touch with her or the family struggling to adjust to her, Thorp said.
"Sandra routinely drove several hundred miles to northern Florida to make sure this family didn't give up on Vicky," Thorp said. "She made sure they had what they needed to stay committed to this child."
When Vicky's official adoption day arrived in July in Circuit Judge Scott Brownell's courtroom, many local guardian ad litem volunteers who knew Vicky's amazing story joined Rhodes in the courtroom.
"That courtroom was packed," Thorp recalls. "Vicky looked like a different person. She looked like a stunning 15-year-old girl. Sometimes it takes a family that is willing to stand beside a child because a child will test a family's devotion. She and Rhodes hugged for five minutes straight while everyone cried."