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A Voice For The Vulnerable

by Carol Pearson

An important yet relatively unknown program is making a huge impact on the lives of this county’s most vulnerable children. Established in 1983, the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program trains and supports community volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected children in the court system. Along with an appointed Guardian ad Litem attorney, the GAL volunteer makes sure the court is aware of the child’s wishes and support needs, effectively acting as a voice for the child as the case moves through the court system.


“Reunification of the family is the aim when possible,” said Tiffany Munday, Guardian ad Litem District Administrator for District 13 covering Brunswick, Bladen, and Columbus counties. When a petition alleging abuse or neglect of a child is filed in District Court, Munday said, the GAL program is called in to represent the child as an objective third party in any court proceedings.


The collaborative model of GAL attorney advocates, volunteers and staff ensures that all children who are alleged victims of abuse or neglect receive these critical advocacy services.


The program serves the added role of helping everyone in the family receive the services they need for a successful reunification when possible. The GAL advocate program receives strong support from Judge Pauline Hankins, the District Court judge who oversees these cases, said Munday.


Yet the GAL program is facing a daunting challenge … a rise in caseloads and a critical need for more volunteers.



A growing need for GAL volunteers


“With more than 350 kids in three counties currently needing our support, and just under 100 active GAL advocates, we really need more volunteers,” Munday said. “Due to the pandemic, we are seeing rising economic pressures, mental health impacts and substance abuse in more families. Kids are having a harder time dealing with the stress, and so are their families.”


At the same time, some of the program’s volunteers have stepped back, for a variety of reasons including pandemic-related concerns. The program is actively searching for interested adults to apply to the program.


“Because of the rising need, our volunteers have been taking on more cases,” said Karen Carnes, a program specialist for the District 13 GAL program. “We are actively growing our volunteer base. Our goal is to have a GAL assigned to every child, so all children have a voice in court.”


Applicants to the program do not need to bring any special education, background, or training, just an open heart and a determination to help.


“The ideal volunteer has a passion for children and a desire to help kids get a better chance in life,” Carnes said. “We are looking for people who have a strong voice and enjoy advocating for others and diving in and making things happen.”


According to Carnes, the essence of the role is to take an unbiased look at the case, roll up their sleeves and investigate the reports, and get to the core of what each child needs.


Applicants who are accepted into the program undergo a six-week training course. Based on the National CASA Association Volunteer Pre-Service Training Curriculum, it is a blended approach that combines in-person and online information. There are approximately 30 hours of instruction on a range of subjects, including child development, communication skills, mental health awareness, cultural awareness training and domestic violence topics.


Volunteers also have an opportunity to observe active court sessions before they’re sworn in and to participate in in-service trainings throughout the year. A GAL program supervisor is paired with each volunteer depending on their level of experience and need.


“A volunteer may have no experience in this type of work, just a heart for assuring each child has a voice,” said Munday. “We make sure every volunteer has the training and the support they need to do the job.”



A proven solution and a solid team


The job itself is an important part of the court process for the families and children involved. After a family is referred to the courts by the Department of Social Services (DSS), the GAL team begins their work.


The GAL advocate’s primary responsibilities include digging for details in the case from court records and reports; building a rapport with the child and learning first-hand their needs and concerns; collaborating with other participants involved in the case including DSS staff; and submitting written recommendations to the court on what’s best for the child.

"As the rapport grows, GAL’s often find the children opening up to them about their situations,” said Bryan D. Wilson, GAL Attorney Advocate for District 13. “They’ll sometimes share information with the GAL about their lives and their wishes that they might not tell the judge directly or other professionals involved in their case.”


This direct link to the child means the child’s needs and challenges are given a voice in the court, resulting in a better outcome for the child and family.


“The GAL’s focus is not to get involved in the family drama or the criminal charges, but to focus solely on what’s best for the kids,” said Wendy Naar, a GAL volunteer from Calabash who has been in the program for the last two years.


“Being a GAL is enlightening and humbling,” Naar said. “I’ve realized so much about life, our county, and the reality of the families in the system. Yes, drugs and alcohol are often part of the problem, but we also see a lot of mental health challenges, and families burdened with poverty.


“To be able to help these families rise up and meet these challenges, with reunification being the primary focus, is so gratifying,” Naar said. “We work hand-in-hand with the [DSS] case workers to help these families overcome.”


Naar said she has been impressed with how well she and other GAL advocates are treated in their role.


“The judges are very respectful of what the GAL says regarding the child,” she said. “We aim to build a bond with the child, like a grandparent or a big brother. That bond can become quite strong, and the joy this brings is priceless.”


GAL advocate Sue Riley of Southport also feels the strength of that support. “I am so impressed with the respect and consideration the guardians receive in the courtroom. This allows us to really make a difference in these children’s lives. The judge is very interested in the program, reads our reports, and is interested in our testimony,” she said.


Ms. Riley finds the DSS social workers are also highly positive and easy to work with and it feels like a great partnership. “We are all really very much a team that works well together.”


After meeting with the children and the families, the GAL volunteer produces a report to use in court testimony, bringing that all-important neutral third-party perspective. Wilson, the GAL Attorney Advocate, is quick to explain he is always present in court when the GAL advocate testifies, to help with any legal questions or concerns that come up. He is also available to the advocates before court and helps prepare the GAL advocate in reporting and testifying.


“I focus on guiding them through the testifying process almost as a conversation,” Wilson said. “I help ease them into the role of testifying, explain there will be times when it may get confrontational with the parent’s attorney, but that I am there to protect them and guide them through it.


“Our GAL advocates are some of the most fantastic people you’ll ever meet,” said Wilson. “Their dedication and hard work are immeasurable, quite frankly.”


What to expect


If you’re ready to consider becoming a GAL advocate and giving voice to a child’s welfare, the first step is to apply to the program. The application process includes a criminal background check and a screening interview. Once accepted into the program, the volunteer begins the 30-hour training course.


At the end of the training, new volunteers are assigned to a supervisor, and are able to tap into the existing network of volunteers and staff for guidance and support.


“There are always GAL program staff and our Attorney Advocate at every court date,” Carnes. said. “We review all reports before they are submitted, and work with the GAL advocates so they are comfortable with the system and the procedures. They are never left on their own at any point in this process.”


Ms. Naar agreed, “The supervisors are amazing; and they guide you through all of it. You can always talk to someone, and we have a fabulous support system.”


Is the Guardian ad Litem program right for you? Take the first step and learn more at www.volunteerforgal.org. On that site you’ll also be able to begin the volunteer application process. Maybe being a voice for a vulnerable child is the best thing you’ll do in the coming year.


The next District 13 GAL Program volunteer training course will begin 1/10/2022.

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