Use Your Voice for Those Without One

Could you step in and speak up for a child in your community? If so, you could become a child advocate for the Guardian ad Litem Program! Volunteer advocates are needed to be the voice for children who have been abused or neglected. Guardian ad Litem advocates are instrumental in helping children secure a safe, nurturing, and permanent home for the remainder of their childhood.

The Guardian ad Litem Program is a court program that provides best interest and legal advocacy to child-clients who are the victims of maltreatment. The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program was established in 1983 by the North Carolina General Assembly and serves as a model for child advocacy nationwide.

When legal action is taken by local Departments of Social Services to protect the safety of abused and neglected children, a District Court Judge legally appoints a trained volunteer child advocate and attorney advocate to provide team representation to the child, who has full party action in these legal proceedings.

The role of the Guardian ad Litem or GAL child advocate is to fulfill state and federal statutory mandates to protect and promote the best interest of juveniles in these proceedings. GAL advocates help move children out of the court system in a timely manner and into safe permanent homes. Volunteer child advocates conduct independent investigations into the child’s circumstances to determine the needs and available resources to meet these needs. GAL advocates provide a voice for abused and neglected children in every county in this state.

Susan Brown from Fayetteville, a volunteer child advocate since 2005, says, “I truly believe there is no greater gift than children. I have been given many. If I had known how rewarding and fulfilling being a Guardian ad Litem was, I would have volunteered the minute I was old enough. I am thankful for the program, I am thankful for the volunteers, but most of all, I am thankful for the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child.”

From 2009-2010, a total of 4,919 volunteers throughout the state were the voice for over 15,000 children in state courts. In September 2011, approximately 1,525 children were served by the program in southeastern North Carolina. Communities such as Columbus, Scotland, and Cumberland Counties alone serve approximately 800 children with approximately 140 volunteer child advocates who are the voice in court for those 800 children in need. However, the need is great – and, in these same counties, over 150 children are without a child advocate on their case. In southeastern North Carolina, volunteer child advocates are urgently needed to be the voice of a child in court. Without them, many children remain in foster care limbo for months and sometimes years.

Regarding her role as Guardian ad Litem, Mary Alexander says, “Often times, the children’s voices are not heard because they do not speak for themselves and sometimes when they do speak, no one listens. As a GAL, it is my job to make an unbiased decision as to what I feel is in the best interest of the child or children involved. This decision might not be what DSS is recommending or what the parents want. Again, it has to be based on what I feel is in the best interest of the child.”

Because the needs of children and families are often complex, yet always confidential, the program seeks out mature males and females of all ethnic backgrounds who can meet the criteria to become a GAL and who have some free time to devote to these children — such as Gary Winters, Denise Power, and Laura Davis, who became child advocates October 2011 for children in Columbus and Bladen Counties.

To become a child advocate, individuals must submit an application, pass a criminal background check, and complete free training.

The Guardian ad Litem Program is a nationwide program affiliated with the National CASA Association with program offices in every county in southeastern North Carolina. Individuals interested in learning more about this most rewarding role can find local program information by visiting www.ncgal.org or by calling 1.800.982.4041.

Your voice for a child in court may make the difference between that child spending months or years in foster care or being placed in a safe home back with parents, with suitable relatives, or in other permanent homes. LOL