Web site: http://12gal.org/index.htm
What they’re all about: More than a thousand children in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Through no fault of their own, those children must navigate through the court system where a judge makes decisions about a child he or she has never met. A confused and frightened child can easily get lost in an already overburdened child welfare system. A Guardian ad Litem is a trained and certified community volunteer appointed by the judge to speak up for an abused or neglected child in court. The volunteer acts as the vital link between the court and the child, making independent, objective recommendations regarding the child's best interests. The program currently has 400 volunteers in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.
How you can help: When children are removed from a family home for abuse, neglect or abandonment, they are assigned a court case. The court appoints a guardian ad litem for the child and for only the child, said Pam Hindman, the Circuit Director for the Guardian ad Litem program. The guardian looks out for the child and what’s in the child’s best interest.
Currently the program in Florida's 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, serves about 1,200 children.
Trained volunteers get to know the children and the parents involved in court proceedings. Volunteers are focused on the children who end up in the court system because of abuse, abandonment or neglect. The volunteers gather information on those children by talking to school teachers, grandparents, foster parents and any other people who can provide insight.
Cases can take a year before they go to court, Hindman said.
At the end of the year, the guardian makes a recommendation on whether the child should be returned to his or her parents.
"We want reunification," Hindman said. "But if parents haven’t done what they need to do to make it safe for children, there could be a safe placement with grandparent or anut and uncle or a close family friend."
Sometime parents can't be found and a Guardian ad Litem might be called on to recommend terminating a parent's right and putting a child up for adoption.
"It’s a heavy experience and a heavy responsibility," Hindman said. "This is not for somebody who wants to play nice — that’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters. This is advocacy; advocating for the human rights of a child."
To that end, the Guardian ad Litem program requires volunteers to go through extensive training.The program offers classes about seven times a year at State College of Florida campuses in Lakewood Ranch and in Bradenton.
The next training session is scheduled for Jan. 18, 19, 25 and 26. Anyone interested in participating in the January training sessions should submit their applications now. All volunteers must go through a pre-training interview and a background check. For information call the volunteer recruiter Jo Havers at 941-708-4614 in Manatee and 941-861-4841 in Sarasota.
"We are a volunteer-based agency," Hindman said."We can't exist without our volunteers."
On financial donations, Hindman says: We have 1,200 children we’re representing. For a lot of them, poverty is an issue. We have had wonderful donations this year. The kids have been blessed.
The Children’s Guardian Fund raises money for the Guardian ad Litem program and also helps to recruit to help kids and volunteers. To donate or get more information contact, Tonya Schrott, program manager at Tschrottcgf@gmail.com.