Guardians ad Litem: carefully selected, thoroughly trained

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Editor’s note: Due to a production error, an incorrect version of this story was published in last week’s edition. This is the second of two parts.

People from all walks of life volunteer as Guardians ad Litem — retirees, students, people with flexible jobs or extra time, people who are interested in fostering children but not quite ready to take that step, and people who just want to give back.

Once an aspiring Guardian ad Litem turns in an application, program staff conduct screening interviews and background checks to determine if the person is a good fit.

The GAL program seeks long-term commitment from volunteers — at least a year and a half.

“One of our goals is for a child to have one guardian advocate throughout their time in the child welfare judicial system,” said Nicole Roman, the program’s district administrator.

On average, it takes about 18 months for children to be reunified with their parents — and sometimes three years, depending on the situation.

“We don’t want to discourage people from participating, but we do evaluate their life commitments to make sure they have the time needed,” Roman said.

GAL volunteers spend about an average of 10 hours per month on a case. One volunteer is usually appointed to a sibling group, which would require additional time.

“We also have to be very transparent about telling applicants that this is very difficult work — emotionally difficult. Some volunteers take one case and don’t stay in the program,” said Roman.

The program offers training three to four times per year. A training course requires a minimum of 30 hours.

“The training was fabulous,” said GAL volunteer Marcia Cordova-Roth. “It provided understanding of the common challenges and issues that bring kids into the foster care system. I learned a lot about different aspects of issues such as domestic violence, substance use, incarceration, mental illness, homelessness, financial and food insecurity. Many families are experiencing multiple stressors simultaneously.”

Other components of the training deal with what’s available in the way of services, how to write a court report and how to understand — from the child’s perspective — all of the different parts of the report having to do with placement needs, school, relationship and visitation with a biological parent and family, medical/emotional/psychological needs and community involvement.

“We role play through various scenarios, discuss specific cases and talk with other trainees about what we were able to learn from documents such as previous court reports, medical records and criminal histories such as if the parent has been involved with substance use, been in treatment or spent time in a homeless shelter,” said Cordova-Roth.

“One of the things we learn in training is how to look at things with a trauma lens versus looking at it from our own perspective,” added GAL volunteer Janice Summers. ”This helps when seeing some parents so focused on survival but not doing what we need them to do to get their children back. A lot of them are doing the best they can.”

By any measure, the Guardian ad Litem has a tough job. Many work with children who often come out of homes in which families struggle with addiction, domestic violence or both.

“Even if the actual abuse is occurring among the adults in the home, the children are witnessing this, and it’s so destructive and psychologically damaging,” said GAL volunteer Karen Frisch.

“For kids that have been in the foster care system for a long time, there is greater likelihood that they have accumulated more trauma, have had tremendous challenges in staying engaged in education and are less likely to have the independent living skills that you would see with a peer who has not had the experience of being in the foster care system,” added Cordova-Roth.

According to Summers, building relationships with the children is essential because Guadian ad Litems need to ask them some hard questions and get information.

“I have to practice empathetic listening, to be able to step into their shoes and eyes. I need them to trust me,” she said. “As a Guardian ad Litem, sometimes we are the bright spot when children have been taken away from their homes.”

“To gain trust, you must really listen,” said Cordova-Roth. “A lot of people think that teens don’t want to talk. I have found that teens do want to talk. Once they know you are being real and honest, they open up.”

Staying connected with children and parents has been challenging for guardians during the COVID pandemic, during which they held “visits” virtually with Zoom calls.

“Sometimes I go and we just stand outside the house to at least see the home they are living in,” said Frisch. “Some of the foster parents don’t have up-to-date technology, so we can’t do FaceTime, for instance. It’s been a fraught time for all of that.”

The pandemic significantly lowered the number of cases reported — not because of fewer incidences but because the children weren’t in public settings, such as school, permitting other people to see, pick up and report problems.

But guardians have one advantage: They can access a child’s records through teachers, therapists, psychologists and other health care providers who supply them with health diagnoses and information regarding medications and treatments.

What children want

“Over and over again, no matter what has happened, kids love and want to be with their parent, particularly for very young kids and even for some teenagers,” said Cordova-Roth. “It’s tragic to have to tell a child their mom is not able to keep them safe, to meet their needs.”

Conversely, sometimes parents have made sustained progress and seek to reunite with a child, but a child may say he or she is still really scared to go home.

What is good for the child is not always what is good for the adults involved, according to Roman. It can be heavy and draining to be part of a system that moves slowly and sad to walk alongside a child going through this process.

“Our job is to amplify the child’s needs and wishes, whatever they are, in the court, but sometimes the court doesn’t do what the child wants,” Roman said. “What we can do is provide continuity for the kids — a nurturing, caring adult that shows up, time and time again.”

Children under 12 years old may go to court but generally have less understanding of the process and less interest in doing so. Older children often want to hear the judge but are not required to go.

“If the child is older and wants to come to court, I have the responsibility to make sure the child may testify and is heard,” said Karen Davidson, District 15B’s GAL attorney. “A great deal of thought and effort goes into deciding if going to court would be damaging or scary for the child.”

The Guardian ad Litem program’s primary objective isn’t the same as that of the Department of Social Services, Davidson said.

“The DSS’s objective is reunification, period,” she said. “They are seeking to come in and rectify the situation that brought the child into the system and return the child to their family. Clearly, if it’s harmful to the child, they will work to place the child, preferably in a kinship situation. They focus on the family, not the individual child.”

“There have been times when I disagreed with the DSS,” said Frisch. “We’re not rubberstamps. As long as I feel that we are all working in the best interest of the child, it’s a very cooperative, non-adversarial relationship. Our recommendations are usually followed.”

Those interested in learning more about the Guardian ad Litem Program serving Orange and Chatham Counties and opportunities to volunteer may visit www.volunteerforgal.org or call Nicole Roman and the District 15B office at (919) 644-4753.

Interest volunteers can access and fill in applications online.

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