“Some children are so fed up with their parents and their lifestyles that they want out and don't look back,” said Kathy Martin, program specialist for Guardian ad Litem in Iredell County.
The state-funded program provides advocates for children whose parents have been accused of abuse and/or neglect. A guardian, a court-appointed volunteer, appears in court when the Department of Social Services files a petition. The guardian conducts an in-depth investigation and submits a written report when a child has been removed from the home.
The volunteer discloses information to the court and reveals the child's wishes and the child's best interests. The guardian is the child's advocate. Sometimes the child's wishes might conflict with his best interests, said Martin.
Once a judge makes a ruling about a child's welfare, DSS and the guardian make sure the ruling is followed. During the monitoring phase, volunteers must see a child at least once a month.
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The law requires the court to identify care within one year. “A year is a long time to a child,” she said. The goal is to move the case through the system quickly.
Martin said the home must be a safe place for the child, and parents must show progress. They may be required to find proper housing, obtain a job, attend classes and make child visitations.
Cyndy Robb, Bruce Applegate and Bob Spencer, guardians, were in court recently. Before cases were called, the volunteers talked to children and their families.
Spencer, a retired attorney, recognizes a need for advocates. Drug and alcohol use can prohibit some parents from providing a safe home and can contribute to their lack of employment. He said parents want the best for their kids but sometimes lack necessary life experiences.
“We ask hard questions. Parents don't want to always answer those questions,” said Robb.
Guardians are serving 77 families and a total of 138 children. The average age of children represented by advocates is 7.
“We have lots of cases with no volunteers because we don't have enough of them,” said Martin. “We are that child's voice in court, and we don't want any child going to court without having their wishes known.”
Currently, 40 volunteers are enrolled in the program.
Applegate was a volunteer with a similar program in New Jersey. He believes it is a good use of his time. “If your heart is in it, become a volunteer,” he said. “Every case is different.”
The Guardian ad Litem program needs volunteers who can commit for one to two years. If you would like to volunteer, contact Martin at 704-878-4208.