County program needs more volunteers to represent foster children

Almost one-quarter of Mecklenburg County children in foster care don’t have a guardian ad litem, an adult who represents their interests in court. A new volunteer recruiter has been hired to combat the problem of fewer adult volunteers and rising numbers of children to represent.

“It’s a fine balance between mentor and advocate and counselor and cheerleader,” said Sterling Oliver, the program’s new volunteer recruiter.

The Guardian ad Litem program, known as Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA in some other states, pairs adults with children in the foster care system to report to court on how the kids are doing.

“You’re an advocate for the child,” said Rebecca Bross, who has volunteered for five years. “There’s a check-and-balance system so that children are getting their best interest.”

The N.C. General Assembly created the GAL program in 1983.

Adults 18 and older are recruited as volunteers and complete 30 hours of training.

They can take up to five cases at a time, and are encouraged to check in with each child about once a month. That includes working with the child, their family, their school and others to provide the court recommendations on how best to support the child while he or she is in foster care. Those responsibilities can also include just bringing over a game to play.

The National CASA Association awarded the Mecklenburg County program a grant to hire Oliver, who is working to bring more people into the volunteer network.

The program has had fewer volunteers and high turnover rates in recent years. Eighty-five percent of cases were covered in 2013, compared with 90 percent in 2011, the program reported. Currently, out of 681 children, 525 have volunteers assigned to their cases, leaving 156 kids without an advocate.

That may be due to 345 new children entering the foster care system since January 2013. The program has trained 64 new volunteers since then, but it also lost 67 to resignation due mainly to the volunteers’ relocation or employment situations, Oliver said.

The total number of volunteers fell from 275 in the July 2012- June 2013 fiscal year to 199 in December 2013, Oliver said.

If there isn’t a volunteer for a child, a program staffer will take over. But with so many extra kids, staff can’t help the same way a volunteer could.

“It’s a matter of hours in the day,” Oliver said. “So those kids can only be checked in on twice a year.”

The group of children most disadvantaged by the volunteer drought are teenagers. As of January, 44 percent of cases without a volunteer were teenagers, even though teens were only 32 percent of children in the program.

Volunteers can be reluctant to take teenage cases, Oliver said.

“What this grant is doing is helping us raise awareness,” she said. “They’re not the stereotype. Kids aren’t in foster care due to any fault of their own.”

Oliver volunteered for five years before she became the recruiter last month. She has worked with 12 kids and 20 cases over the years, including some where children have graduated out of the program at age 18 and kept in touch.

One teenager surprised her after he left the program.

“He aged out of care and I felt like I had done something positive for him,” Oliver said. “One day approximately six months out of care, he texted me on Mother’s Day. So (teenagers) do notice and respond, and they need somebody that believes in them.”

GAL asks that volunteers commit to one year of service or ideally the life of the foster care case they take.

The majority of Mecklenburg’s 194 trained volunteers are women and minorities – only 24 are men, she said. No special experience is needed to help.

“All we ask is that you’re compassionate, dedicated and articulate,” Oliver said. “But you don’t have to be an attorney or have a postgraduate degree.”