In the last 10 years, Patsy Batson has supported and encouraged 20 children who have been abused or neglected in Horry County.
The North Myrtle Beach resident has been an advocate for each child through the Horry County Volunteer Guardian ad Litem program.
Through the program, guardians such as Batson are able to speak up for a child's needs and make recommendations to family court as to what is best for the child.
But now the Horry County program needs more guardians to volunteer at a time when the program is seeing more children, officials said.
"We certainly need more guardians," said Batson, who currently has one case involving a 6-year-old girl. "When you have a lot of children coming into the system at one time, it's difficult when you don't have a large volume base."
As of July 1, the Horry County program has taken on 99.1 percent of all cases due to a state ruling this summer that required that the guardian program take all cases and that lawyers no longer are appointed as guardians in child abuse and neglect cases.
The changes mean the program is already seeing close to the number of children it saw the entire 2010 fiscal year with about the same number of guardians.
From July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, the program had 104 active guardians and served 202 families - 357 children, said Sam Hodges, 15th Judicial Circuit coordinator for the Volunteer Guardian ad Litem program, which includes Horry and Georgetown counties.
Since July, the Horry County program has helped 327 children from 181 families, with 96 active guardians, Hodges said.
Guardian ad litems work with children up to 18 years old, but most of the children in the Horry County program are boys and 5 years old and younger.
Horry County officials are concerned that the additional number of children will put more pressure on the guardians already in the program to take more cases.
The program in Georgetown County, on the other hand, has enough volunteer guardians. Several there don't have cases assigned to them, according to officials there.
"We are one of few counties in the state that is in that position," said Myra Dingle, program coordinator for the Georgetown County Volunteer Guardian ad Litem program. "We have had five or six children in the last month, where Horry County may have that many in one week. Our numbers are so much smaller than Horry County.
"I think the population is just different," Dingle said. "I think there are a lot of transits in Horry County. In Georgetown County, there are a lot of families that will step up to the plate and help, especially in the black community."
Statewide (not including Richland County), 2,110 guardians have worked with 6,023 children as of Oct. 31, said Louise Cooper, director of the South Carolina Guardian ad Litem Program.
"There seems to be a trend upward for more cases," Cooper said.
Hodges said when the program first started and there were not enough volunteer guardians to take cases, some were given to attorneys who acted as guardians.
But Chief Justice Jean Toal decided that volunteer guardians would do a better job than appointed attorney guardians - a decision that went into effect in July, Hodges said.
"We're always looking for more because guardians quit or move away," Hodges said. "With the economy, some had to quit because they had to go back to work."
Hodges said most guardians in Horry County work full time. Then there are those who are retired or unemployed, she said. Most are women and the average age of a guardian is 531/2.
There is a need for men, black and Hispanic guardians, Hodges said.
"They can make a difference in the life of a child; you may not see it when they're working with a child, but guardians make an impact," Hodges said.
Ken Peterson knows that all too well. His nephew, who his brother and sister-in-law adopted, had a guardian as he was brought up in the foster care system.
After talking to his brother and sister-in-law about his nephew's experience, Peterson - a retiree who lives in North Myrtle Beach - decided that if he was going to volunteer for something, it should be the guardian ad litem program. He has been involved with it since October 2009.
"I'm amazed at some of the challenging circumstances kids live in," said Peterson, who had been a teacher for 15 years before he went to work with a pharmaceutical company. "The parents are more interested in other things than the care of their kids."
Peterson - who currently has two cases, one involving a 17-year-old girl, the other involving six children ages 7 to 15 - said guardians have been taught not to get emotionally involved, but "that is very, very difficult to do," he said.
"It's not an easy job," Peterson said. "There are times it is gut-wrenching and other times it is very rewarding."
Batson also finds it rewarding.
"You see so many children that have so many needs," she said.
And others also have noticed the need and see where they can make a difference, Batson said.
"When I go out and recruit, the stories are heart-tugging to them," Batson said. "They see they can be involved with the child, but on a different level because it's not necessarily service-oriented."
Hodges said guardians are advocates only. They cannot transport children or give them gifts, she said. They are expected to see the child at least once a month whether at school, day care, foster home, or at the child's home where the Department of Social Services is involved.
They can have as many as three cases at one time and are free to decide what type of cases they do or don't want.
Guardians must have 30 hours of training, no criminal record, not be on the Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect, be over 21 and reserve time for court.
Individuals wanting to be a guardian have to also have a one-hour interview with Hodges.
Guardians are the "link between where a child is and where a child wants to be," Hodges said. "A guardian is one constant in that child's life."
Contact JANELLE FROST at 443-2404.