A Voice for the Children
Guardian ad Litem advocates are needed in Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties.
Daniel Murray of Southport begins to explain that after a meeting with an abused child, the child walked with him and his wife, Debra Sullivan, to their car and hugged them. Murray stops in midsentence, trying to stem his emotions.
Sullivan completes the sentence. “He said he loved us,” she says.
This kind of reaction repeats itself for the children and the adults in the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. Guardian ad Litem is a Latin term meaning “guardian for the case.” In this program, the guardian is an adult volunteer who protects the interests of an abused or neglected child. Murray and Sullivan joined the program more than three years ago.
“We are the eyes and ears for the children with the court system and the judge,” Murray says. “The judge wants us to report to him how the children are doing and anything they might need.”
Karen Carnes, North Carolina Guardian program specialist in District 13, which includes Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties, says she’s seen the program work. “The guardians look out for the child’s best wishes,” she says. “The child has a voice in court through the guardian.”
Karen Ernst of Ocean Isle Beach, a GAL volunteer for 16 years, attests to that. “We call ourselves ‘a voice for the children,’” she says, adding that the most important factor in being a GAL is the ability to listen. That includes not only listening to the child but to the social workers, parents of the children, foster parents and others involved in the case.
“It’s not something you can do by yourself,” she says. “With Social Services and others, we can help children find safe, loving permanent homes.” Besides, “We have excellent juvenile court judges,” she says. “They listen to what we recommend and what we say.”
Sullivan says they take an interest in things the children are involved in, such as sports, hobbies and school activities. “It’s amazing to watch them understand that we are there for them, we are there to help them,” she says. “There are people watching out for them.”
“We try to be a constant for them, somebody they can depend on,” Murray adds.
Carnes says the need for GALs is great in District 13, even though there are 95 active GALs. As of November 30, 2020, 298 children were assigned a GAL, and in Brunswick County, the 71 GALs were working with 179 Brunswick County children, with 27 more Brunswick children not yet assigned to one. Carnes adds that between June and August there were 24 child welfare petitions in court, but from September through November the number rose to 43. Although she doesn’t have factual evidence, she suspects the rise can be related to not having children in school.
“There are so many children who need someone to support them,” says Joyce Beatty of Leland, a GAL for six years. “I like seeing a child happy and able to be productive.”
Carnes explains that training a GAL includes 30 hours over six weeks. The next training begins February 2 and ends March 9. Training includes topics such as establishing rapport with the children, conducting an investigation and studying a sample case. Emphasis is on being objective and respectful to all parties with the interests of the child the primary concern.
The obligations of a GAL after being sworn in by a judge are to do an independent investigation, have consistent contact with the child, consult with others involved in the case, such as the social worker, teachers, parents and/or foster parents, and attend meetings and court hearings.
“A GAL is committed to seeing the case to its close,” Carnes says.
Ernst says if you care about children and want to help them, this is really an excellent program.
“If you have one case, it doesn’t take up a lot of your time,” she says.
It is possible to have more than one case at a time.
“The Guardian ad Litem has a heart to help children,” Beatty says. “I like seeing the child reconnected with their parents or seeing a child have a forever home. My greatest successes are reunification and adoption.”
Murray and Sullivan see GAL as giving back to the community. “The rewards outweigh the heartaches,” Sullivan says and adds that the greatest success is making the children feel important and being there for them. “The bottom line is that it’s the children we’re looking after, and we want their best interests,” she says.
Ernst says many people tell her they don’t want to volunteer because it’s too sad to be a GAL.
“I say, yes, it often is sad, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” she says. “We are helping children to NOT be sad.”
Can you volunteer with Guardian ad Litem?
The next 30-hour Guardian ad Litem training begins February 2 and ends March 9.
(910) 253-3922, Monday to Friday 8:30 am to 5 pm