Guardians ad Litem give kids a voice in and out of court

Editor’s note: first of two parts.

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Every week, a volunteer guardian and the state-retained attorney from the Guardian ad Litem Program for NC District 15B appear before the Juvenile Abuse, Neglect and Dependency Court in either Orange or Chatham County. While the children and youth they represent may or may not be present, decisions regarding their well-being and where they will live are the focus of the proceedings.

For the children, the process and events leading up to this day in court can be confusing, traumatic and scary. The Guardian ad Litem Program (GAL) exists to give them a voice and advocate for their needs and wishes — theirs alone.

“These children are coming through these courts through no fault or act of their own and many of them have had terrible experiences,” says Karen Davidson, District 15B’s GAL attorney.

GAL is engaged and a volunteer advocate appointed for every child the Department of Social Services has determined to be abused or neglected. Right now, the District 15B GAL office, which is a part of the administrative offices of the Court, is working with 94 children in Chatham County and 71 children in Orange County. Currently, there are 134 GAL volunteers serving newborns to 18-year-olds.

“Each child we work with has experienced trauma of some kind or another, many being separated from their families,” says Nicole Roman, the program’s district administrator. “Most of the children are in DSS custody and, possibly, foster care.”

Upon entering the court system, parents who have been investigated or are under investigation for child abuse or neglect have legal representation through a lawyer. The Department of Social Services has its own attorneys on board.

“Most kids like to know that there is someone on their team; someone who is there just for them; someone they can trust,” says Roman.

The Guardian ad Litem Program’s mission is to be a voice for the children in our community, she said.

“We advocate for a safe and permanent home as soon as possible for each child.”

“Permanence” is the key word and desired outcome.

“For some, a permanent resolution is being returned to their family or place of origin entering the system,” she said. “Another permanent path would be adoption. Foster home placement is not considered a permanent solution.”

“The system runs on reports — from individuals, from social workers, from guardians ad litem,” says Davidson.

There for abused, neglected children

When DSS receives a report alleging abuse or neglect, the department conducts an assessment. In 2019 Chatham County reported that 28.7 out of every 1,000 children were assessed for abuse or neglect in the county, according to NC Child, an organization established to advance public policies for children. If DSS determines that the situation warrants further legal action or is in a high risk definition of abuse and neglect, they consult an attorney who files a petition on their behalf to the court. At that point, the court involves the GAL program.

Within seven days, either a non-secure custody hearing to temporarily remove the child from his or her home or a child-planning conference is held. If there is an allegation of sexual abuse, DSS responds immediately. With neglect reports, it might be 24 to 48 hours, depending on the type of information DSS has received. Within 60 days, there will be a ruling on whether the child experienced abuse or neglect. Parent(s) will have opportunity to fight the decision. DSS must seek a judge’s signature to remove a child from his or her home.

“In District 15B, we sometimes have a child-planning conference first along with the parent to get everybody off to a good start and start problem-solving,” says Roman. “We do have families where there is report of abuse or neglect but DSS doesn’t remove the child, but the situation in the home is supervised. For GAL purposes, we are assigned from the time when a child is brought under the court system by the allegations made by DSS until they reach permanent placement.”

“The plan normally goes to reunification because an investigation has to be made,” says Karen Frisch, a GAL volunteer with about 12 years’ experience. “The initial determination is a process and gives the opportunity, even if there is a glimmer of hope, for the parents to work it out.”

Determination of parental rights can be a long process, not always involving termination. Options may include visitation rights or having others making decisions for the best interests of the child.

“It’s not a snap judgment. The important thing is that the child’s safety is not compromised,” says Frisch.

Reunification only occurs about half the time.

Recently the state legislature has emphasized obtaining permanence as soon as possible so children are not left for long periods of time in uncertain situations. New laws came into effect in 2021 addressing that issue, according to Davidson.

“Children’s timelines are very different than for adults and they can’t just wait and wait and wait for parents to correct the issues that brought them into the system,” she said.

“We don’t want children to languish in the foster care system,” Roman said. “Until a judge says otherwise, everyone is working towards reunification with the parents.”

Guardians ad Litem are required to meet with the child they are assigned to at least once per month. Beyond that, time spent varies significantly, depending on need. GALs are also required to have contact with parents and observe interaction during visitation and between court dates.

“I check in with placement providers, whether parents or foster parents, to get updates and find out about anything outstanding like dental appointments or enrollment in an activity,” says Janice Summers, who started with the GAL program in February of 2021. “I will see them when I visit the children.”

GALs are also required to maintain contact with the DSS social worker involved and daycare providers as well as teachers, counselors or social workers at the child’s school.

The District 15B office in Chatham County has three staff members, with Roman reporting to the N.C. Guardian ad Litem Program Administrator. Each guardian ad litem is supervised by a staff member and has representation by the GAL attorney who presents their recommendations to the court. GAL volunteers come primarily through word of mouth, but there are also some recruitment efforts and the need for guardians ad litem is ongoing.

“We strive to have volunteers on board ahead of the need,” says Roman. “We don’t always have that but we are fortunate to have high interest in our area.“

There’s not been a time for more than 10 years when I haven’t had a case,” says Frisch.

Summers was assigned her first case the day after she was sworn in by a judge.

Experience and inspiration

Motivation, inspiration and experience that lead individuals to become Guardians ad Litem volunteers vary widely.

Roman was headed for grad school to become an occupational therapist when she started volunteering for a rape crisis center. The experience changed the trajectory of her career, sending her instead to work in a child-advocacy center and with non-profits focused on domestic violence and sexual abuse. She has served the GAL program for the past 12 years.

Frisch is a certified yoga teacher. Since retiring from the workplace, she has used her certification to work with senior citizens, patients with dementia, young adults with cognitive challenges, youth with cognitive challenges and elementary and middle school students. She has been a guardian ad litem volunteer for 12 years.

Volunteer Marcia Cordova-Roth’s background is in public health — designing systems of care for women, children and families. She has been a disability advocate as an extension of her family and professionally. Through her daughter, she realized that kids who are out-of-home placed often don’t have an adult or parent to advocate for them in getting their needs met. She prefers working with adolescents and teens. She has volunteered as a guardian ad litem for the past eight years.

Janice Summers decided more than 25 years ago that she wanted to do GAL work. A college internship in juvenile services positioned her across the hall from a GAL court room. She was impressed with the guardians standing up and fighting for the children there. Her career life took another path as a healthcare system program manager. Now retired, she honors her goal to advocate for children through the GAL program.

Davidson has been retained as legal counsel for the GAL program for more than thirty years. Working in the district attorney’s office in Wake and then Chatham County, she prosecuted child abuse cases as well as others. Later she practiced family law with the Epting and Hackney firm in Chapel Hill. Her mother’s illness led her to determine that she needed to be in a solo practice and she moved her practice into her home. She continues to practice, now focusing on collaborative family law.

April: Child Abuse Prevention Month

“There are so many ways that communities, families and individuals can support children and youth in foster care such as mentoring, volunteering at schools, and paying attention to ways to include a child who is in and out of home placement in activities,” says volunteer Cordova-Roth. “Pay attention to foster families in your neighborhood, church sponsored families, and kids living with a grandparent or in a non-traditional setting. Help a child connect with his or her interests. You can operate in the world and not be aware of poverty, children’s needs, domestic violence or abuse or you can look at it.”

Davidson praises foster parents in Chatham and Orange counties, saying: “Sometimes children are placed with the most amazing foster homes and it’s incredible how sometimes when a child is placed in a great foster home, everything gets turned around. I wish we had many, many more of them. They are astonishing.”

“From the bottom of my heart, I have so much admiration for our guardian ad litem volunteers, the people who choose to do this work, to take time away from their own lives to work with these children,” says Roman.

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.

Applications can be accessed and filled in online.

In part 2, next week, we look at how guardians are trained.

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