What does it take to be a Guardian ad Litem? A heart for a child and a willingness to take the time to find answers.
Recently, volunteers were sworn in during Juvenile Court in Stokes County. These Guardian ad Litem volunteer advocates will take on a child’s case when a family gets involved with the Department of Social Services and the child is placed in the custody of DSS due to neglect or abuse allegations against the parents. The Guardian ad Litem volunteer investigates and advocates for the needs of that child, whether it be needs in school, medical needs, or therapy to address the trauma the child has experienced in the home prior to being in DSS custody. These volunteers take 30 hours of training to be equipped to advocate for the child’s needs, in the child’s best interest. After their training, the volunteers are sworn in and appointed by the judge to take a case.
The children to whom the GAL are assigned have been removed from their home and placed with a relative or foster care placement, so that they are in a safe environment. The children are then followed by the department social workers and by their GAL.
Each child taken into care is represented by their own Guardian Ad Litem attorney advocate in court. James Freeman, an attorney from Elkin, and who grew up in Mount Airy, is the attorney for the children, advocating to be sure that the court understands the needs of the children. He has been the Guardian ad Litem attorney for more than 15 years and understands what should happen in the best interest of the children. A court report is written by the Guardian ad Litem volunteer that explains to the judge; the history, current placement, education, and medical and psychological interventions, along with recommendations to meet the needs of the child moving forward.
At the beginning of a case, Freeman, the volunteer GAL, along with DSS and the court, will seek to put the family back together, to reunify them. That is part of North Carolina law, to work toward the plan of reunification. However, due to so many problems in the parent’s lives; substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health needs, and lack of housing, transportation, and jobs, these families can’t always be placed back together. In Stokes County, approximately 20 percent of the families whose children are taken into custody by DSS are reunified with their parents. The other children are raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, other relatives, or become adopted. This percentage is typical across the state.
In the best interest of the children in care, volunteer Guardians ad Litem talk with the placements for the children, the parents, the teachers, doctors, therapists for the children to understand what each child needs to be healthy, both physically, emotionally and mentally. They also are sure to ask the wishes of the children so that that the judge can be aware of what each child wants and what is important to them. It has been stated by our local judges that the Guardian ad Litem volunteer is the person in that courtroom who relays to the judge what is in the best interest of the child, which is essential to know.
The Guardian ad Litem Program was established in 1983 by the Legislature of North Carolina and mandated to represent a child in court. This year the Guardian ad Litem program is celebrating 35 years of child advocacy through volunteer efforts for the best interest for children.
The local Guardian ad Litem program that covers Stokes and Surry Counties is looking for community members to become advocates for children who need a voice in court. There will be a training class starting March 27 at The Pilot Center, in Pilot Mountain. The class runs six weeks, with the first class date being from 4:00-5:30, the other five weeks from 4:00-7:00 each Tuesday. To find out more about the Guardian ad Litem program visit www.volunteerforgal.org. An application to become a Guardian ad Litem is available on the website. Interested community members can call 336-593-4415 or email Jaime.L.Kehoe@nccourts.org to learn more about this way to volunteer to directly support children and their needs.
Each one of us want to see a stronger and safer community for all of our citizens. By advocating for a child you are helping to make positive changes not only for that child, but for the future of the whole county.