Children come into foster care after being removed from their home by the Department of Social Services due to issues of neglect or abuse. 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 program for Stokes County is in need of volunteers to support children when they are removed from their homes. 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, Supervisor for Stokes County. “The legislature decided that it would be an outreach program using volunteers as the advocates”, she continued.
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. Kehoe relayed a story where a child was worried about his dog. When the children were removed from the home, no one knew what happened to their dog. This can be a tremendous worry for a child, but not on the radar when working to get a family the services to enable them to get back together. The dog had been taken to the animal shelter and given a new home, yet this relieved the child’s fears. He could feel okay knowing the dog was happy.
Stokes County has been growing in neglect and abuse cases over the last number of years to the point that the staff have 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 27 wonderful volunteers who have stepped up to take children’s cases, to be their voice in court – but we need more in Stokes County
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 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 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, Kehoe went on, “They miss friends, school, especially when they are teenagers. The children in care are always happy to see the Guardian ad Litem volunteers though.”
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. Those make the newspapers and television, but by far are not the majority of cases. With that said, drugs are part of the vast majority of neglect cases.
Approximately 90% of the cases of child neglect in Stokes County involve substance abuse. Children see things and know things about drugs and alcohol they shouldn’t know.
“We hope that those who have 4-6 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 3-6 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”, expressed 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 staff will arrange an interview. There is a required criminal check and references for new GALs.
A training (30 hours of training is required to be a volunteer) is getting ready to start January 19, 2016 at The Pilot Center, in Pilot Mountain, NC on Tuesdays for 6 weeks from 4:00-7:00. This training is partly on line and partly in a classroom setting, persons interested in being a volunteer need to know how to use a computer. When finished the volunteer is sworn in by a district court judge to become a Guardian ad Litem.
If you have interest in learning more about the Guardian ad Litem program call Jaime Kehoe, Program Supervisor at 336-593-4415 in Stokes County. To e-mail: Jaime.L.Kehoe@nccourts.org.