Volunteers vow to serve as advocates for children
More than a dozen volunteers took an oath Saturday on the campus of Winston-Salem State University to serve as advocates for children in court.
For 30 years, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program, a division of the State of North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, has supplied an advocate attorney and a volunteer GAL to represent children in cases where parents lose custody as a result of abuse and neglect.
The newest volunteer GALs were welcomed into the program on their last day of training. During the period of separation, volunteer GALs are asked to communicate with the child or children involved in the case, their parents and other involved parties before recommending to the court what they believe is in the best interest of the child or children. They could recommend to a judge that a parent be allowed to regain custody or that the restoration of parental rights be held off for a longer period.
Linda Devine, GAL district administrator for Forsyth, Surry and Stokes counties, said the volunteers are vital to the process, as her division has one attorney currently representing more than 100 children.
“The advocates are the ones who do all the hard work, the leg work, on the case and help advise the court as to what’s in the child’s best interest,” said Devine. “… We’re the only person in the courtroom speaking just for the child.”
Devine said the goal is to reunite children with their parents within a year. The Forsyth County Department of Social Services offers services and treatment to parents to help them correct the problems that led to them losing their children. In cases where reunification isn’t possible, the GAL program must suggest an alternative plan for the child, such as adoption or giving custody to a relative.
Volunteer GALs receive 30 hours of training to learn the ins and outs of the program. Each volunteer is asked to take at least one case.The GAL office supervises the volunteers on each case.
Most of the new volunteer GALs already had cases assigned to them by the time they ended training Saturday. District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield, who regularly works with the GAL program and its volunteers, administered the oath to the volunteers.
Hartsfield said sometimes children are more comfortable confiding in a volunteer, telling them things they would not share with a judge or lawyer. Hartsfield urged the volunteers not to become discouraged when they deal with cases involving sexual abuse, kids living in squalor and other difficult circumstances.
“This is a big job and an awesome responsibility, and I can’t thank you enough for being willing to take this opportunity,” Hartsfield said.
Volunteer GALs come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Alex Bohannon, 18, is a freshman majoring in political science and philosophy at Elon University. He was Hartsfield’s summer intern; the judge suggested that he consider the GAL program.
The aspiring lawyer, judge and politician hopes his youth will be an asset when he has to communicate with children.
“My youth … makes me more relatable,” he said.
Harvey Long, 22, a WSSU senior majoring in English and minoring in Sociology, plans to become a school counselor. He was drawn to the program by the opportunity to work with children.
“I’m excited about doing it, but I hope I can live up to it because it’s a huge responsibility,” said Long.
Cynthia Moir, 50, earned a master’s degree in community agency counseling in 2009 from N.C. A&T State University. She said becoming a volunteer GAL is a great way to hone her counseling skills. She’s already done a variety of volunteer work, including tutoring at-risk teens and illiterate adults, but said working with the GAL program will be something special.
“It’s sentimental to me because children don’t have a real voice in the court system and being able to speak on their behalf is a humbling experience,” she said.
Devine said that GAL trainings are held several times a year. There are no special educational requirements to become a volunteer GAL, but participants must pass a criminal background check.
For more information about becoming a GAL, visit ncgal.org or call 336-779-6651.