By Miranda McFalls
Since the North Carolina General Assembly established the Office of Guardian ad Litem Services in 1983, volunteers have sacrificed their time and energy to advocate for children in district court because of abuse or neglect allegations filed by Social Services.
A Guardian ad Litem, or GAL, spends an average of eight hours a month interviewing, researching and going to court to help children who have no one else to speak for them.
“Being a Guardian ad Litem is very rewarding,” Jan Boren, a Boone citizen who has been a GAL for eight years, said. “It has it’s frustrating times, as does any other volunteer effort. But there is nothing more valuable to our country than our children.”
The Guardian ad Litem Program is currently looking for volunteers who want to positively impact children’s lives by advocating for them in court.
A Guardian ad Litem volunteer’s main duty is to promote the best interest for a child in abuse or neglect court proceedings. GAL’s have full party status in trial and appellate proceedings. They can interview any person involved in the trial, visit child-clients, monitor court orders, ask the child what outcome they prefer and write a report of their findings. The report explains what the GAL believes to be the best option for the child. He or she presents that report to the judge.
“You’re kind of like the judge’s eyes and ears,” Boren explains. “The judge uses your report and the report from social services to make their decision on what happens in the case.”
Being a GAL is a rewarding experience, but it has it’s downsides as well. Besides the program being purely volunteer-based, it is also hard to witness certain cases.
“Seeing parents who seem to care more about drugs than their children is hard.” Boren said. “I’ve seen cases where the parents can’t come off of the drugs and that’s definitely frustrating.”
Valerie Daniels, Becky Deyton and John Lewis are the Guardian ad Litem staff persons for Madison, Yancey, Mitchell, Avery and Watauga counties. Daniels focuses her attention on Mitchell, Avery and Watauga counties.
Although she is involved in the program as a supervisor, she still feels a strong pull to help children.
“Knowing our program makes a difference is the most rewarding part,” Daniels said. “Some days you don’t feel like you’ve made a difference, but when you see positive outcomes for the children, you know you have made a difference.”
Trying to manage the Guardian ad Litem program for three counties can be difficult. Having enough time to devote to each of the cases in each county can be overwhelming.
“It feels like there’s never enough time in the day,” Daniels said. “I feel like I’m barely touching the surface of what I need to get done.”
If there is not an available GAL when a case is presented, Daniels and other staff members must perform the volunteer advocate’s duties. This adds to the already packed schedule of Guardian ad Litem staff and can take away attention to other cases. It’s vital that the program have enough volunteers so staff can focus solely on their jobs.
To become a Guardian ad Litem, a volunteer must complete a background check and an interview. After completing those steps, he or she receives 30 hours of basic training.
Guardian ad Litem volunteers span across all ages. The GAL program offers an internship for college students. The interns are required to complete ten hours of volunteer work per week.
“I’m going through sessions that happen once a week for about four weeks,” said Carrie Ann Wible, a senior sociology student at Appalachian State University and intern for the Guardian ad Litem Program. “I have a huge heart for children, and I feel like I could really help these children. I could go be their voice.”
Being a Guardian ad Litem is not easy. Between the hours a volunteer must put in, –including the paperwork– and seeing children who are in bad situations, it’s simple to decide that the program is not for you. But the rewards far outweigh the hardships, volunteers say.
“I get to see children flourish in their new environments and I get to see some parents who work really hard and succeed in order to get their kids back,” Wible said. “I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s been an awesome learning experience.”
Miranda McFalls is a student at Appalachian State University who is currently studying journalism.