Speaking for Children
Put yourself in a child's shoes in a courtroom surrounded by lawyers, social workers and adults who have neglected or abused you.
It's a drama that unfolds in Moore County courtrooms on a regular basis: a young victim of adult mistreatment and now at the mercy of a cold, seemingly unfeeling court system.
Shining a sympathetic and very warm light on such situations is a team of volunteers appointed by a judge to advocate for these children.
These volunteers are known as Guardians ad Litem. They work largely behind the scenes, but few volunteers work harder, under more emotional pressure, and receive so little recognition.
Guardians ad Litem are not sissies. They become, instead, the voice of the child whose fate is before the court.
"You have to stay professional, but sometimes I have to remind myself to remain professional, because they pull at my heart strings so hard," says Donna Taylor, a Guardian volunteer for the past three years.
"Sometimes you feel like you want to pick 'em up and take 'em home with you," adds Dudley Buck, a five-year volunteer.
Although the children surely do tug at heart strings, Guardians ad Litem cannot allow emotions to get in the way of their duty to investigate the circumstances of each child's life, then make recommendations to the court about the youngster's future.
"We're not caregivers," says William T. Clemons III, a volunteer since 1999.
Clemons explains that Guardians ad Litem are not appointed by the court to serve as buddies or mentors of their assigned children.
"We don't take them to dinner, to movies, or the zoo. We're not playmates," Clemons says, taking some of the fun out of the experience.
His comments are a sober reminder to himself and the three fellow Guardians interviewed for this article.
"You really get involved with the children. You can't help it," says Buck.
Pidgie Chapman, the other Guardian interviewed, admits that she and her fellow volunteers cannot sugarcoat the hard work, but she wants to recruit new volunteers, lots of them.
Chapman, a Pinehurst homemaker, has served 10 years as a Guardian and has been assigned at least 20 cases during this period. A case is not necessarily one child. One case may involve several children of varying ages.
Guardian volunteers work hard, and the work is time consuming and emotionally draining, says Clemons.
"There's a lot more work than what appears on the surface," Clemons continues. "The classic definition (of the work) is to make sure the children are safe. In reality, we do a lot more."
For example, he has helped parents to find jobs or enter drug treatment programs, anything that will produce a more stable home, making it possible for the child to stay in the home with birth parents but without continued mistreatment.
"The kids are not the problem. The kids are easy. It's the caregivers who cause the problem," Clemons adds.
If the work is so hard, why would anyone want to be a Guardian?
"It's hard work, but it is rewarding," says Chapman.
"It really is rewarding," says Clemons. "Sometimes the reward takes awhile, but when you see the judge follow your recommendations and place children where you know they will flourish, you really feel good."
"To see them move into a house where they can grow and mature and flourish, that is the reward," says Buck.
Chapman makes it clear that the Guardian ad Litem program needs many more volunteers in Moore County.
The volunteers interviewed included four from different parts of the county and from different walks of life.
Taylor is a teacher assistant with the Moore County Schools and lives in Carthage. She has been assigned five cases.
Buck, whose assignment includes 12 cases in five years, lives in Aberdeen and works part-time at the ABC store in Carthage.
Clemons is a semi-retired attorney who lives in Pinehurst and practices law with Bob Thompson in Southern Pines. Since becoming a Guardian ad Litem in 1999, he has handled so many cases he has lost count. Clemons thinks the total is somewhere between 30 and 40 cases.
Jerry "Dusty" Rhoades is the attorney serving the Guardian ad Litem program. When he isn't available, Clemons pitches in and helps out.
Chapman says this diversity shows that any responsible adult who is concerned about the well-being of children can serve as a Guardian. She says it is inaccurate to assume that all such volunteers are retirees.
"The program was created by a judge who felt that the community was not getting a full picture of the needs of these children. He felt that the court was listening to lawyers, social workers, and parents but was not getting an objective point of view on behalf of the children," says Chapman.
The result was the GAL program whereby the judge appoints a Guardian to represent the child. This means making a thorough investigation into the circumstances within the home, determining the child's wishes and what would be best for the child, although sometimes what the child wants is not necessarily best for that child.
The Guardian program deals with abuse and neglect situations and is not involved in dependency issues, according to April Faircloth, Guardian ad Litem supervisor for Moore and Montgomery counties.
Buck describes a typical situation this way: "Someone comes home from work and has had a bad day. That someone takes it out on the children. A neighbor calls Social Services, a petition is issued, and the child ends up in foster care."
Maybe, but not necessarily.
Chapman says one goal is reunification -- returning the child to the home with birth parents. She admits that often this is not what happens, nor is it the best solution.
"We have very good judges who listen to us," Chapman says.
"We work best one-on-one. We build relationship before we can do our work," says Taylor.
Chapman says she has been very fortunate in her dealings with social workers, who have been helpful, providing background information and other services. However, social workers carry heavy caseloads and are constrained by federal and state bureaucratic red tape.
Taylor recalls a case in which a child lived with the grandmother because her "daughter had issues," and finally the Department of Social Services removed the child from the home and into foster care.
"It tore me up when I saw that situation," Taylor says.
"A Guardian has to be a detective sometimes," says Chapman.
Chapman explains that a Guardian must be a serious and responsible person because these volunteers have access to confidential information, such as medical and school records.
"I have been to team meetings with drug counselors, with mental health people, anger management classes, social workers, anything to help parents overcome problems in the home," says Buck.
Buck recalls attending meetings once a week in one case. That child was moved from foster home to foster home over a period of several months and finally ended up in a therapeutic foster home.
"The children are the victims," Buck says.
The average child wants to remain in the home, even with abusive parents, the volunteers agree.
The most frustrating part of the job is recognizing that the parents are not trying hard enough to deal with the problems that generated the abuse and/or neglect, the volunteers report. Many of the cases involve alcohol or drug abuse, and sometimes sexual molestation is also part of the problem.
"It is so frustrating when you go back into the home and see that the parents haven't done what they promised to do," says Taylor. "The children almost always want to go back home to mom and dad."
"They deny it happened. It's scarier than being alone," Chapman says.
Clemons agrees and notes that in most cases the child thinks the choice is between being alone or living with abusive parents.
"It's a harder job than most people think. Dealing with the kids is easy. You can get there and talk to him like a dutch uncle and ," Clemons' voice trails off. Then he reminds everyone that he has been an attorney for 25 years and ought to be pretty tough.
Faircloth says Chapman is indeed correct about the need for more volunteers.
The two-county supervisor says that 105 of the total 120 cases within her jurisdiction are in Moore County, where 36 volunteers are available to serve. That leaves many children with no advocates before the court.
"I'm always in need of Guardians," says Faircloth.
Faircloth recently returned to her office after sick leave and found six new cases, involving 12 children, awaiting her attention. But she has no volunteers to help them.
Guardians are volunteers who receive no payment for their work. Their only compensation is reimbursement for travel expenses
The situation is less acute in Montgomery County, where five volunteers are available to advocate for 15 children.
The Guardian program is a service of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. Guardians are appointed by the judge who handles domestic matters in each county. Once appointed, they take an oath of office administered by the judge.
And not just anyone can serve as a Guardian.
A Guardian must be at least 18 years old, must pass a criminal background check and must undergo 20 hours of training in small groups. Faircloth conducts the training sessions herself, using the manual provided by the state.
Faircloth says she would prefer to assign only one case to each Guardian. One case per Guardian would reduce burnout, a syndrome that develops because of the conditions in which Guardians observe children living and because of the emotional intensity of the service. That's her wish, but in reality each Guardian must handle more than one case at a time.
After the Guardian has visited the home and investigated the child's circumstances, he or she must prepare a written report for presentation directly to the court. That report must contain the Guardian's recommendations.
"It's important that people understand that they must go to court to present their reports," Chapman says.
Clemons says the Guardian program serves as something of a stopgap, a service not readily available to social workers who are constrained by government regulations and financial limitations. This doesn't mean that the Guardian program is adversarial with DSS, it just means that Guardians can spot details missed by social workers.
By advocating for children, Guardians sometimes can secure funding for a child that would not otherwise be available through DSS.
"Judges really listen to our voice," Clemons says.
Then Clemons admits that when he first signed on as a GAL volunteer, he had doubts about the response of the judiciary.
"After being a trial attorney for years, I thought `Yeah, right,' but they won't listen. But then I had a case that DSS wanted closed. I stepped in and the judge really did listen," Clemons says.
He realized then that the program works.
"We make sure that nobody falls between the cracks. We make sure children get the services they need," he says.
"You really get involved with the children. You can't help it," says Buck.
Chapman says they all try to keep a professional distance, and Clemons adds that "we all have to set boundaries."
Then Chapman adds reflectively: "To make a difference in a child's life is a great reward."
The Guardian ad Litem program, administered by the North Carolina courts system, may be reached by calling Faircloth at 947-4843. Her office in Carthage serves both Moore and Montgomery counties.
Florence Gilkeson may be reached at email@example.com.
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