DOBSON — Thanks to recent ceremonies in Dobson, local children who are caught up in abuse or neglect cases will have advocates working on their behalf.
During two separate sessions of Surry County Juvenile Court, new Guardian ad Litem (GAL) volunteer advocates were sworn in by local judges. The Guardian ad Litem program was established in 1983 by the state Legislature under a mandate to ensure children are adequately represented in court.
Program volunteers have been trained to take on the cases of children whose families become involved with the Department of Social Services and a child is in DSS custody due to neglect or abuse charges against the parents.
Children assigned to Guardians ad Litem have been removed from their homes and placed with relatives or in foster care, so that they are in a safe environment. The youths then are monitored by department social workers and their guardian advocates.
A Guardian ad Litem volunteer investigates what has happened to bring a child into DSS custody, and advocates for the needs of that individual related to school, medical or therapy to address the trauma he or she has experienced in the home beforehand.
GAL volunteers receive 30 hours of training to be equipped to advocate for the children’s needs and serve their best interests. After the training, the volunteers are sworn in and appointed by a judge to take a case.
Each child taken into care is represented by a Guardian Ad Litem attorney advocate in court.
James Freeman, an attorney from Elkin who grew up in Mount Airy, makes sure the court is aware of the children’s needs. He has been a Guardian ad Litem attorney for more than 15 years and understands what should happen on their behalf.
A court report is written by the Guardian ad Litem volunteer which explains to a judge hearing a case its history; the present placement situation; any educational, medical and psychological interventions; and recommendations to meet the needs of the child moving forward.
At the beginning of a case, Freeman, the volunteer Guardian ad Litem, the DSS and the court will seek to reunify the family in accordance with a goal of North Carolina law to work toward such a plan.
However, due to a variety of problems occurring in parents’ lives, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health needs and lack of housing, transportation or jobs, families can’t always be placed back together.
In Surry County, about 20 percent of the families whose children are taken into DSS custody are reunified. The other children are raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles and other relatives or become adopted. This parental-reunification percentage is typical across the state.
In the best interest of children in care, the volunteer Guardians ad Litem explore placements for the children and talk with their parents, teachers, doctors and therapists to understand what each child needs to be healthy — physically, emotionally and mentally.
They also endeavor to gauge the wishes of the children so the judge can be aware of what they want and what is important to them. Local judges have stated that the Guardian ad Litem volunteer is the person in a courtroom who relays essential information about the best course of action for a child.
More training upcoming
The local Guardian ad Litem program, which covers Surry and Stokes counties, is seeking more community members to become advocates for children needing a voice in court.
A training program starts on March 27 at The Pilot Center in Pilot Mountain. Classes will run for six weeks, with the first class meeting scheduled from 4 to 5:30 p.m. and on the subsequent five Tuesdays, 4 to 7 p.m.
More information about the Guardian ad Litem program is available at the website www.volunteerforgal.org, where applications to become a Guardian ad Litem also are available.
In addition, interested community members can call Kate Appler, district administrator of the area Guardian ad Litem Division, at 336-386-3721 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, to learn more about volunteering to directly support children and their needs.
“Each one of us wants to see a stronger and safer community for all of our citizens,” Appler explained.
”By advocating for a child, you are helping to make positive changes not only for that child but for the future of the whole county.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.