Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
Children in the foster care system often find themselves without anyone to turn to. The 30th Court District’s Guardian Ad Litem Program (GAL) works to recruit volunteers to help represent the needs and best interests of children in the court system. According to Joe Allen, GAL Supervisor for Macon County, the need for additional volunteers in the region continues to increase.
“Our goal is to recruit and train volunteers to be able to represent the needs and best interests of a child in court,” said Allen. “The Guardian ad Litem offices across the state use a nationally-recognized training program. Guardians will learn all about the court system and their role in it so that they can be confident when they take their first case.”
The role of the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is that of a trained volunteer who is appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child. In court, the GAL serves as an important voice for the child, working in conjunction with the child’s attorney to represent the child’s interests.
Macon County averages 45 children in foster care at a time. There are currently 10 foster children in Macon County that do not have their own GAL. In the case in which there are not enough GAL volunteers available to cover the number of cases, the County Guardian Ad Litem Supervisor will cover the case until such time as more GALs are able to be trained and sworn in.
“We match our GALs to their cases and try to play to their strengths and weaknesses,” said Allen. “Supervisors in our district provide as much or as little ongoing support for our Guardians as needed. Our services, by statute, cover every child for which DSS has filed a petition alleging abuse or neglect.”
A Guardian ad Litem should have a sincere concern for the well-being of children, a commitment to advocate for a child until a safe and permanent home is established and court involvement is no longer required. A qualified GAL must also to have the ability to be objective and nonjudgmental and have the ability to interact respectfully with people from diverse economic, education, and ethnic backgrounds as well as good verbal and written communications skills.
GALs gather and assess independent information about a child’s station and needs by getting to know the child, interviewing the parents, caretakers, social workers, teachers and service providers. Volunteers also read records related to the child and the family.
In order to become a volunteer, potential GALs will have to complete an application, a screening interview with program staff and a criminal record check.
The initial training program takes 25-30 hours to complete, usually in the evenings or on the weekends. After a volunteer is assigned a case, they will spend 10-15 hours per month interviewing parties, reviewing reports, attending court (if scheduled that month), and visiting with the child. The time commitment varies from case to case.
With a need for volunteers, members of the community can become trained by visiting Allen’s office, located at the Macon County Courthouse.
“People can be involved by coming in and learning about what GALs have to offer to foster children,” said Allen. “If interested, then going through the training and being sworn in as a GAL to be able to be the voice of a child in Court. It’s also very helpful to talk about the program. If being a GAL doesn’t sound like something you can do, spread the word. If you have friends or family members you believe would be interested in the program.”
With a varying number of foster children in Macon County, at times, children’s can fall between the cracks and without someone to turn to. The GAL program works to prevent that from happening.
“The Guardian ad Litem is very important in regards to the foster care system,” said Allen. “Department of Social Services [DSS] does a wonderful job of ensuring policies are met in working with families towards their permanent plans. The social worker represents DSS, which has legal custody of the child or children involved. DSS is concerned with ensuring the safety of the child(ren), and is charged with finding a permanent caregiver for the child, whether it is the parent(s), other relatives, foster care, adoption, or some other safe placement. As a Guardian ad Litem, you focus entirely on the child, advocating for special services, investigating community resources, and being the child’s voice in court. Studies have shown that children with their own Guardian achieve much better outcomes than those without.”
The 30th District GAL program carries weight in court, as local judges know the program’s intent and the impact it can have on a child’s life.
“When it comes to speaking for children in court, I think the extra advantage is the weight our volunteers carry in court,” said Allen. “One might think ‘Well what does my voice really matter for this kid in court amongst all these professionals.’ The answer is, the judges in our district have great respect for our program and what our volunteers do. GAL’s opinions matter just as much as any lawyer, social worker, or other professional in the courtroom. In many instances, the volunteer’s opinion is valued at a higher level since the volunteer has no other competing interests in the case outside of what is solely in the best interest of the child.”
For more information on becoming a GAL, contact Allen at (828)349-2409, or visit www.volunteerforgal.org.