The voices of those most affected by child neglect or abuse are often the hardest to hear.
Many parties become involved when a child is separated from his or her family through Department of Social Services (DSS) intervention and the case moves through the court system.
To help ensure children don’t get lost in the shuffle, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program was established in North Carolina in 1983 as a division of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to satisfy a federal funding requirement.
Programs differ from state to state. North Carolina provides a combination of staff, attorneys and volunteers to represent children and advocate for them in court.
Statewide, the program involves 4,866 volunteers, about 150 staff, and about 250 attorneys who are a mixture of staff, paid and pro bono.
According to information from the AOC, the GAL volunteers saved the state $10.78 million in Fiscal Year 2014-15.
“Having the volunteer who has spent considerable time with the children is a great resource in determining the question of best interests,” Surry and Stokes County District Court Judge William Southern wrote in an email.
“Best interests of children is a nebulous concept that can include essentially as much information as can be relevant. I need to have as much information as I can get in these difficult cases, and the best way to do that is to have all the key players in place to have their say. Certainly having the children’s wishes represented in court is a large part of that.”
According to information available from the AOC, “The program does not yet have a volunteer advocate for every child. In those instances where no volunteer advocate is available, GAL staff are required to perform the volunteer advocate’s duties, limiting their ability to focus on their primary duties of recruitment, training, and supervision. Currently, 1,900 children need the services of a volunteer advocate.”
The number of volunteers in Surry County has improved over the past couple of years.
“We’re in much better shape than we used to be,” said Kate Appler, program administrator for the judicial district comprised of Stokes and Surry County, who added that Stokes County is hurting for GAL volunteers.
Appler said one challenge to find volunteers is the commitment required. Cases proceed slowly, once assigned, the volunteer must stick with it.
But it’s a commitment worth making.
“There are lot of things we can do to help the world, but very few things can point to that I am directly involved in what happened to that family,” she said.
Before a volunteer starts working a case, he or she must first apply and be accepted into the program.
The application process includes a criminal background check, a screening interview, and 30 hours of intensive, standardized training.
Volunteers who earn certification are sworn in as officers of the court.
When assigned a case, statute requires a volunteer to visit the child in the home a minimum of once a month.
As well as home visits and court appearances, the GAL can and is expected to access medical records, school records and any anything needed to fully assess the child’s situation.
The guardian compiles facts, observations and their recommendations in a written report submitted to the judge.
“It’s pretty intense,” said Regina Combs, of Mount Airy, who joined the program about a year ago. “So much hinges on this report. I was afraid I would do something wrong and end up hurting the children instead of helping.”
She powered through it and learned to trust her self.
Combs said her GAL work is rewarding, “even if everything doesn’t go your way in court,” she said.
“When you get those little victories and you know you’ve made a difference, and the child can go to bed safe or reunited with parents who have changed.”
Appler said that the courts goal is for children to be in a “safe and permanent” home, and, “within that, the first goal is always reunification,” and so a non-judgmental outlook is a key component for effective advocacy.
“The research shows so much trauma just from being removed,” she said. “People forget all children love their parents.”
Even in cases where it’s in the best interests for the child to be separated permanently from their parents, to more fully acknowledge that bond helps.
Richard Wagner, of Mount Airy, said his work as a GAL volunteer has helped him develop a less judgmental outlook.
He wasn’t looking for a volunteer opportunity when he learned about the program.
“What caught me was the plight and perspective of children in foster care,” the father of five said.
“There can be pretty intense circumstances in the cases,” he said, but in more than ten years with the program, “I’ve yet to see a case where the parents didn’t love the child or children didn’t love the parents.”
“If you’re looking at a case from the perspective of the child, it helps you to suspend any judgment,” Wagner said.
“I will say the prevalence of either multi-generational mental illness and or drug abuse is so common in these cases that a person like myself won’t say why don’t they just do what I would do. Because I don’t have the burden of mental illness or drug addiction.”
The next GAL volunteer training session for Stokes or Surry County begins in May. Those interested in applying should visit www.volunteerforgal.org or call 386-3721 (Surry) or 593-4415 (Stokes).
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.