By Guest Blogger Seth Houk, Guardian ad Litem District Administrator
Planning to go to the county courthouse is not usually an event that excites most people. Thoughts of waiting anxiously for a case to be called, giving testimony in front of several people, fielding questions from attorneys, and nervously anticipating a Judge’s ruling can be stressful. As unappealing as that experience may be to some people, imagine what the experience is like for a child. Furthermore, imagine what that experience is like for a child who is a victim of abuse or neglect, who has been removed from their parents’ care temporarily and placed in a group home or foster home, and who has unfamiliar adults making all the important decisions about their life.
The North Carolina Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program is a volunteer program within the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. When abused and neglected children are taken from their parents’ home due to allegations of abuse or neglect by the county Department of Social Services, a court case is initiated to address the circumstances within the family. The GAL Program is appointed by the Judge to represent the children in the matter and to ensure the children have an adult in their life who will listen to their wishes, speak up for their best interest, and serve as their voice in the courtroom.
The GAL program recruits, screens, trains, and guides community volunteers to serve as court-appointed GALs for these children. Each GAL volunteer is paired with a GAL staff supervisor and an attorney to advocate for the best interest of the children in the court system. The GAL volunteer works towards achieving two goals for the child: to ensure the child leaves the foster care and juvenile court systems as soon as possible for a safe, permanent home; and to ensure the child’s needs are being met appropriately while the child is in the foster care and juvenile court systems. “Any mom or parent or someone who cares about kids is qualified to do this work,” says GAL volunteer Emily Phillips of Greensboro. Phillips, who is a mother of two children, ages 7 and 2, works full-time at UNCG. “Parents are uniquely equipped to be able to advocate for children int the court system. While I am advocating for children and serving as their voice in court, I am also helping myself grow as a person,” adds Phillips.
GAL volunteers develop a trusting rapport with the child they represent through monthly, in-person visitations where time is spent talking about the child’s life and hearing from the child what information they want the Judge to know. GAL volunteers play a unique role as a court-appointed advocate and do not fill the role of mentor, therapist, attorney, teacher, caretaker, gift-giver, or other service providers. In addition, the GAL volunteer gathers information about the child’s life from people involved in the child’s life with the intention of identifying any missing resources needed for the child. The GAL then collaborates with the child’s Social Worker to ensure identified resources are put into place. On average, the GAL attends court hearings- along with the child’s Attorney Advocate and potentially the child- every three months to present information to the Judge on what is happening in the child’s life and to make recommendations to the Judge about how to meet the best interest of the child.
“I like that I get to be the person in the child’s life who gets to speak up for what is best for the child, not just what’s the easiest answer,” says GAL volunteer Ty Jackson. Jackson, a High Point mother of three- ages 2, 8, and 16- says serving as a GAL has its triumphs and challenges. “I’m always able to find the time, though. I think most parents understand that as your family grows, so does your heart. It is the same for me in serving as a GAL. I find the time to commit and my heart grows to include the kids I represent.”
GAL volunteers come from all walks of life. There are no educational or experiential requirements to apply to serve as a court-appointed GAL, however each applicant is screened thoroughly to ensure the volunteer opportunity is a good fit. Volunteers complete a 30-hour pre-service training prior to service and are guided, coached, and supported by GAL staff members as the GAL volunteer becomes confident in their role. Volunteers also must commit to serve the child for the entirety of their court case, which can be from 24-36 months. Anyone interested in learning about serving as a GAL volunteer in North Carolina should visit www.volunteerforGAL.org to learn more and to contact the GAL program in their county.