MANATEE -- An all-time record 821 children were removed from their Manatee County families in 2015 for their own safety, largely victims of the county's heroin epidemic, court records indicate.
That's nearly twice the 421 Manatee children who were removed from families in 2014, according to records obtained from the 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.
For every one of those 821 children, the 12th Judicial Circuit tries to provide an adult to advocate for them in their schools, their foster homes and the courtroom -- and that person is a Guardian ad Litem, commonly called a GAL. With the increasing number of children in need, the program needs more volunteers immediately.
The Guardian Ad Litem program boasts about 200 volunteers who each have one or two children assigned to their care. But the heroin epidemic has overwhelmed the program and left children without a voice.
About 100 new GALS are needed so paid court employees don't have to step in, as they have been, to ad
vocate in the most severe cases, said Nancy Sanders, chairwoman of the volunteer recruitment committee for the 12th Judicial Circuit's Guardian ad Litem program and a GAL herself.
"We need at least 100 new Guardians ad Litem," Sanders said last week. "The reason for the critical need is that there's been a tremendous increase in the number of heroin deaths and abuse cases in Manatee County."
Only 76 percent of Manatee County children who need a trained GAL are currently getting one, Sanders said.
Not all the 821 Manatee cases involve heroin. Some of the children were removed because of domestic violence, abuse, neglect and abandonment. The court makes the decision to remove the child based on information it is given by various organizations.
"Then the judge will ask if the Guardian program can speak for the children and, if so, a GAL attorney and a GAL volunteer are assigned on an availability basis," Sanders said. "Unfortunately, right now, we don't have enough GALS for every child."
'A separate set of eyes'
Guardians ad Litem are of vital importance, said Vicki Shawvan, the first 12th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem secretary in 1985, when the program arrived in the tri-county area.
"They are a separate set of eyes for the children," said Shawvan, now the administrative assistant for 12th Circuit Judge Scott M. Brownell, whose courtroom is often the site of emotional dramas where hard decisions are made for the safety of children.
Brownell often asks GALS for their input on cases, including their recommendations since they have been with the children and talked to them.
"The judges rely heavily on GALS, because we don't have any vested interest other than trying to speak for the children," Sanders said.
To show the strain on Manatee GALS, Sarasota County had just 385 children removed from their families in 2015 and DeSoto had 62, Sanders said.
Once assigned to a child, the Guardian meets with the child at least once a month to make sure his or her needs are being met.
"Once they are removed from the home, we check on everything from medical to educational to psychological," Sanders said.
Being a Guardian ad Litem is tremendously rewarding for most who try it, Sanders said. But being a GAL is an intense experience and may not be for everyone.
"The biggest challenge is trying to stay objective," said Ken Fletcher, an administrative assistant for the Guardian ad Litem program in the 12th Judicial Circuit. "People can get too attached to children and get into more being grandparents. We want them to advocate for the child's needs. This often is hard because the children are so adorable."
But if a person can keep from becoming too attached to a child and lose objectivity, the rewards are great, Fletcher said.
"The reward is that you get to be with a whole bunch of professionals, get to meet the judges and get to advocate for the needs of children," Fletcher said.
Although people can be Guardians ad Litem starting at age 21, the bulk of the volunteers are in their 50s, Sanders said.
The position does require going through some training, and candidates must pass a background check.
"The training is not overwhelming," Sanders said. "There are two days of in-class training at the Lakewood Ranch Chamber of Commerce. There is also some online training. Plus, you do need to sit in the courtroom and observe some court proceedings."
New volunteers will also receive a mentor.
"That mentor will be a GAL who is very experienced," Sanders said.
"That person is who you go to with your questions. In addition to your mentor, who is also a volunteer, you will be assigned to a 12th Judicial Circuit staffer who will fill in the information gaps."
Sanders believe most people who respond to the court's need will be enriched.
"It becomes a passion for most of us," Sanders said. "One little boy I had couldn't remember the name and called me his Guardian Angel. In a way, I guess, he was right."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.