Children come into foster care after being removed from their home by the Department of Social Services. These children need someone to be their voice, someone who understands their needs and someone who listens to their wishes. In North Carolina, this advocate is called a “Guardian ad Litem”, a court appointed child advocate.
The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program for Stokes County is in desperate need of volunteers to support children when they are removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. When the Department of Social Services determines that children and their parents need services that require the children to be placed outside of the home, a Guardian ad Litem gets involved.
“We have been part of the support system for children since 1983 in North Carolina. The state legislature decided that it was important to have this advocacy for our state’s children,” said Jaime Kehoe, GAL supervisor for Stokes County. “The legislature decided that it would be an outreach program using volunteers as the advocates.”
The volunteers see the children and advocate in court for needs that they might have, and their wishes. A Guardian ad Litem visits the children, talks with them, finds out what they miss, how they are feeling about the situation and try to help make the situation more appropriate for the children. Stokes County has been growing in neglect and abuse cases over the last number of years to the point that the staff has many children who have no volunteers to take their case. For the staff, that means trying to see children, overseeing the volunteers, and trying to recruit new volunteers and train them.
“I have 25 wonderful volunteers who step up to take children’s cases, to be their voice in court. But we need 20 more in Stokes County,” explained Kehoe.
Many people have fears about being in a situation that might be dangerous. When the Guardian ad Litem sees the children, they have been removed from the dangerous situation. They are with grandparents, other relatives or family friends, or in foster care. When the children are removed they may be traumatized by the home situation that they just left, or maybe not even understand why they were taken out of their homes.
Another misconception about being a part of this kind of volunteer work is that the children will be sad and people say that they can’t handle seeing sad children. Generally, the children are not sad, they feel sad about not seeing their parents, but they smile and play just like other children. The Department of Social Services have to take custody of children of all ages from babies through teens. As we all know, children react differently at different ages.
“They miss friends, school, especially when they are teenagers. The children in care are always happy to see the Guardian ad Litem volunteers though,” Kehoe said.
In spite of what people might think, neglect is the number one reason children are removed from their homes, not physical abuse or sexual abuse. The abuse cases tend to make the newspapers and television, but by far are not the majority of cases. Drugs and alcohol are part of the vast majority of neglect cases. Approximately 90 percent of the cases of child neglect in Stokes County involve substance abuse, mostly drugs. Children see things and know things about drugs they shouldn’t know.
“We hope that those who have four to six hours per month to support children in this situation will consider volunteering in this way. Volunteers are required to see the children every month, write court reports, and attend court when their case is heard, generally three to six times a year. This is a more involved volunteerism, but it is also a more impactful volunteerism, one that might make all the difference in a child’s life forever,” said Kehoe.
To become an advocate a person must fill out an application by going to the website www.volunteerforgal.org, completing the application on line and then the staff will arrange an interview. There is a required criminal check and reference request for new GALs.
Guardian ad Litem Volunteer training is getting ready to start May 22, 2018 at The Pilot Center, in Pilot Mountain on Tuesdays for six weeks from 4 – 7 p.m. This training is partly online and partly in a classroom setting (30 hours total), therefore persons interested in being a Guardian ad Litem volunteer need to know how to use a computer. Once a person has completed the training process, he/she is sworn in by a district court judge to become a Guardian ad Litem volunteer.
If you have interest in learning more about the Guardian ad Litem program call Jaime Kehoe, Supervisor at 336-593-4415 in Stokes County. To e-mail: Jaime.L.Kehoe@nccourts.org.