It seems more and more North Florida families are literally self-destructing.
"The cases and circumstances are more complex. The severity of the abuse and neglect seems to be at a higher level. There is considerable domestic violence and severe substance abuse (like) methamphetamine issues, so a lot of children are being severely neglected as a result of the parent or parents substance abuse."
That's Deborah Moore, Director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the Second Judicial Circuit.
"Starting about two years ago we felt a larger number, the most significant increase probably in the past year. This time last year, we were serving 150 children less than what we are now. So we are definitely at, if not over, 700 children for the Second Judicial Circuit, which covers 6 counties," she shared.
Each of those children is assigned an adult advocate. That person looks out for the best interests of the child as they are shunted through the legal system. And more cases means more advocates are needed so no child goes without.
"We were going along pretty well with the number of volunteer child advocates that we had to ensure that every child was assigned an advocate. But as those numbers increased, we've felt like we needed to put the gas pedal on a little more to recruit and ensure that we're bringing on as many volunteer child advocates as we need, no matter how many children are referred to us."
One such advocate is Sean Ruane. He became an advocate a few years ago.
"One of my neighbors was a foster parent," he remembered. "They had a number of children they were fostering and I could see the relationship they were building and how important it was to those children. Contrast that with the stories you hear day in and day out about the terrible things that are happening to children being neglected and abused. I've been blessed with a good job and a stable environment where I have spare time and how can I use that to help."
Ruane added being an advocate has been rewarding and fulfilling for him.
"I was very fortunate in that the first case that I worked with the young man was a teenager who was adopted and he's now attending college and doing pretty well. So it's very satisfying to see something like that. I know they're not always quite like that, but there's always an opportunity to make their lives better so I think every volunteer has some story where they've made lives better and therefore made THEIR life better."
At the same time, Ruane insisted the program's demands on his time haven't been a burden. Director Moore said all advocates assume their duties with all the tools they need to do the job.
"We want to make the training, which is critical to knowing what to do and how to do it, more convenient for individuals," she pointed out. "We've added Saturday and online training. There's a portion of the certification and training that is online, but we've added additional online so that will hopefully not be a barrier for anyone if they feel this is a good fit for them."
And Moore hoped being a Guardian ad Litem child advocate will be a good fit for more volunteers, especially men like Ruane and retirees, who bring a unique set of skills to the task. Information about the program is online.
"They can look at our local website: www.gal2.org. And then our statewide website is a great resource as well: www.guardianadlitem.org."