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Guardian ad Litem: A voice for the neglected

There was no one around to help Shantell Mankowski navigate life as a neglected child growing up in a poor area of Chicago.

She said she was physically and sexually abused and bounced from one foster home to another, landing in places she shouldn’t have been, seeing things she shouldn’t have seen.

Maybe that’s why the Florida Guardian ad Litem program made an impression when she heard about it while serving jury duty.

The program helps abused and neglected children by providing trained volunteers to represent their interests as they pass through the court system.

“That is what made me so active about helping these kids,” Mankowski said of her past. “I had no one to look up to. I had to figure it all out on my own. ... I’m blessed to have had the life I had because it allows me to understand these kids.”

The local Guardian ad Litem program is trying to provide a larger roster of role models like Mankowski by recruiting more minority volunteers to better represent the number of children who need help.

Of the more than 200 Guardian ad Litem volunteers in Manatee County, just 13 (seven Hispanics, six blacks), or about 6 percent, are minorities, according to Pam Hindman, the program’s 12th Circuit Court director. Meanwhile, 23 percent of the program’s 430 clients are black and 15 percent are Hispanic.

“We have an issue with diversity,” said Hindman, whose program serves Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties. “We would very much like to broaden our volunteer base to have people available who might have a better understanding of what these kids go through.”

Mankowski, an esthetician and nail technician who moved to the Bradenton area five years ago, completed her required 30-hour training last week and was given her first case Monday. She is helping a 16-year-old girl who has been in and out of juvenile detention and is dealing with mental health issues.

The mother of two considers the program a companion to her other passion: The Diamonds You Are, a nonprofit organization she started in November to help young people realize their potential.

“I wanted to make sure other people don’t have to go through what I went through,” she said.

Alfredo Nunez, a retired elementary school principal from Boston, has been a Guardian ad Litem volunteer since February.

He is involved in two cases, one a custody case involving a family of six children. The grandmother, who hopes to become permanent guardian of the children, doesn’t speak English, making Nunez’s fluency in Spanish vital to the family’s understanding of the legal process.

“Once I signed on, I realized my language and cultural background would be an asset,” Nunez said. “When you become a guardian, it’s best if you can speak the language and communicate with the family. If I can assist by explaining the process, it helps.”

Nunez moved to Bradenton permanently after suffering through a harsh winter in Boston. He said the Guardian ad Litem program is the perfect opportunity for him to continue helping children.