Each year, scores of children throughout the region are removed from their homes and taken into custody by the Department of Social Services (DSS) if it is deemed by the courts that they have either been abused or neglected. It is then up to the courts to decide where such children end up.
Each month, dozens of children in Macon, Jackson and Swain Counties are put into DSS custody.
At the end of August, there were 22 Macon County children in DSS custody, according to county DSS Director Jane Kimsey. Twenty-nine children were in DSS custody at the same time last year, and those numbers fluctuate every month depending on when cases get adjudication, she explained.
But where do the children end up?
During the court-process of finding a home for abused or neglected children— whether it is foster care, distant family, or to return custody to the biological parents—the volunteer-driven Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) program comes in to represent such children and help with their destination.
To be precise, GAL volunteers, paired with court appointed attorneys, serve and represent abused or neglected children in the court system to determine the best possible situation for the welfare of the child.
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Shannon Cowan, GAL Program Supervisor for Macon, Jackson and Swain Counties, explained at any given time there may not be enough GAL volunteers to serve children within their respective communities.
“Basically, we are trying to recruit more volunteers,” said Cowan last Friday. “Children in custody need someone to watch over them. Our caseload is dependent on how many children DSS takes in.” Any abuse children may have incurred at home, she added, is identified with the help of GAL volunteers.
According to Cowan, each case is different, and with each case the program appoints certain volunteers according to their availability and dedication. “Cases do differ,” she said. “They are intense. We try to tailor the cases we give out to certain volunteers.”
To date, there are just enough guardians to represent youth throughout the region. In Macon County there are 23 youth being represented by approximately 12 volunteers, forty-two children in Swain represented by 10 volunteers and 21 Jackson youth served by 15 active guardians.
“We could always have more volunteers,” said Cowan. “Based on the number of volunteers we’ve had in recent years, there is a need to build our guardian pool back up.”
However, becoming a GAL isn’t for the faint of heart. Applicants can not have any criminal background and there is a 30- hour training program that all applicants must take in order to become GALs. Once the training is complete and an applicant is chosen, they are then sworn in as an officer of the court.
“It takes a very special person, who commits their time and resources, to be the voice of children in foster care,” said Kimsey, stressing that GAL Volunteers advocate solely for the child’s best interest.
Cowan explained that GAL agents play a “huge role” in a child’s domestic life by making home visits and extending their hand as a friend. Where judges cannot go into the home of a child, a GAL can. GAL volunteers are required to see a child once a month, however if a case is new or urgent then an agent may see a child once a week.
For more information on how to give voice to a child who would otherwise be lost in the court system, contact Cowan or Connie Barker at (828)349-2409.
Q: What is a Guardian ad Litem?
A: A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a trained volunteer who is appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child. In court, the GAL serves as an important voice for the child. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q: Who can be a Guardian ad Litem?
A. Guardian ad Litem volunteers come from all walks of life and have a variety of professional, educational and ethnic backgrounds. No special education or experience is required. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q. How will I know what to do?
A: The Guardian ad Litem offices across the state use a nationally- recognized training program. You will learn all about the court system and your role in it so that you can be confident when you take your first case. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q. Is being a Guardian ad Litem dangerous?
A: We would never ask you to do anything or go anywhere that makes you feel unsafe. You can take a social worker, another GAL staff member, or police officer on a home visit if you need to. You can also arrange meetings in public places, such as a restaurant or a DSS office. (Last updated on 02/24/2004 )
Q. I work full time. Can I still be a Guardian ad Litem?
A: Many of our volunteers have full-time jobs. Much of the work can be done on the weekend, in the evening, or on the telephone. You would need your employer’s permission to take off work when you have a court date (every three to six months, depending on the case). (Last updated on 01/22/2003)
Q: What is the time commitment for a Guardian ad Litem?
A: The initial training program takes 25-30 hours to complete, usually in the evenings or on the weekends. After you are assigned a case, you will spend 10-15 hours per month interviewing parties, reviewing reports, attending court (if scheduled that month), and visiting with the child. The time commitment varies from case to case. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q: How many cases do I have to take?
A: We have no minimum number of cases for volunteers. Each GAL volunteer accepts only as many cases as he/she has time to handle. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q. Would I be liable for my work?
A: The North Carolina General Statutes shield volunteers from liability: “Any volunteer participating in a judicial proceeding … shall not be civilly liable for acts or omissions committed in connection with the proceeding if he/she acted in good faith and was not guilty of gross negligence.” N.C.G.S. § 7A- 493. (Last updated on 02/24/2004 )
Q. How is the Guardian ad Litem different from a social worker?
A: The social worker represents the Department of Social Services (DSS), which has legal custody of the child or children involved. DSS is concerned with ensuring the safety of the child(ren), and is charged with finding a permanent caregiver for the child, whether it is the parent(s), other relatives, foster care, adoption, or some other safe placement. As a Guardian ad Litem, you focus entirely on the child, advocating for special services, investigating community resources, and being the child’s voice in court. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q. Will I have to testify in court?
A: It is a possibility. Most of the time, the people who will be called to testify are those with first-hand knowledge, such as the social worker or a doctor. If you do have to testify, the Attorney Advocate and the GAL staff will prepare you thoroughly. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q: I worry that the parents will resent me and be uncooperative.
A: It comes as a surprise to many people that the parents are usually more than glad to tell their version of the events that have caused this case to come before the court. As a GAL, you are just asking questions and listening at the outset, and most parents do not find this threatening. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )
Q: May I take the child to a museum or a ball game?
A: No. Your role is not to provide services, but to investigate and observe, and to be an advocate. That in itself is an important gift to the child, but it requires good judgment, objectivity, and a clear understanding of your role. For this reason, you also must not give significant gifts to the child. (Last updated on 01/22/2003 )