At any time, 800 to 900 children may be in Mecklenburg County's foster care system.
The 271 volunteers in the guardian ad litem program can make sure those children's voices are heard.
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a trained community volunteer appointed by a District Court judge to investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children petitioned into the court system by the Department of Social Services.
Three local women are doing their part as advocates for children who may not know how to speak for themselves.
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Having witnessed child abuse in her family at an early age, 38-year-old Iris Goodrum, who lives in Huntersville's Skybrook neighborhood, said she always knew she wanted to be an advocate for children but wasn't sure how to get involved.
After losing her job this spring, she met with one of her former managers, who described her own volunteer experience as a GAL.
Goodrum instantly was drawn to the program, and in June began the criminal background screening, application and training process, which requires 30 hours of training up front.
Goodrum now meets with three siblings as her caseload, ensuring they receive proper care in their foster home. She also makes regular visits to the children's schools, prepares written reports for court hearings and interviews social workers and other service providers about the children's progress and needs.
Having recently returned to work, she now juggles her job responsibilities with those as a GAL, as well as those of raising her own three young children with the support of her husband.
Jackie Soltis, who joined the GAL program in March, became a volunteer after reading a newspaper article several years ago about a child the Department of Social Services separated from his stepfather.
A few days later, a court ordered the boy be returned to his stepfather, despite the boy's protests. The child's stepfather murdered him the next weekend; the story made a lasting impression on Soltis.
The 57-year-old MacAulay resident said she researched the GAL program and realized while becoming a foster parent wasn't right for her, becoming an advocate was. She now has served as a GAL for two sets of children.
"If I've done nothing else in my life, I've made a difference in a child's life," said Soltis. "Somewhere along the line, you're going to make that child's life better."
Among their responsibilities, GAL volunteers partner with the children's foster parents to get children the care they need and to make sure sibling and extended-family visitations are taking place.
Each volunteer has a supervisor and attorney assigned to each case, and they are present at court appearances to make sure all facts are correct.
Soltis said she was surprised how much emphasis is placed on reports she turns in on behalf of the children.
The courts "put so much emphasis on what the volunteer says," she said. "Your word is just as important as a social worker or attorney's."
Melissa Orr, a Huntersville resident who recruits guardians ad litem for Mecklenburg County, said interested volunteers do not need a special background or degree to participate, just a caring and committed concern for the well-being of children.
"Of the 271 volunteers we have, about 50 or 60 of them are men," she said. "We are always looking for more male volunteers, because so many of the children in the foster care system are boys."
Volunteers in the guardian ad litem program are not allowed to purchase anything for the children in their cases, or transport them anywhere, because that can be a liability for the volunteer. Instead, volunteers visit with children in foster homes, group homes or homes of relatives.
They may also visit the children at their schools or child-care centers.
Most volunteers spend four to six hours per month on each of their cases. The role of guardian ad litem is flexible; volunteers only take on as many cases as they choose.
Soltis and Goodrum agree the attitudes of the children make the effort worthwhile.
"They are so grateful of an outsider caring for them. It makes you realize the important things," said Soltis.
"I didn't really know the value I could add to these children's lives," said Goodrum, "but soon I realized I could make a difference with my own set of skills, and the kids really appreciate it."