Guardian Ad Litems try to be a voice for children
Talking to kids is hard enough when life is going fine, but when their parents are going through a divorce or maybe having substance abuse problems, children can clam up. It’s Janet Thatcher’s job to gain their trust.
As a Guardian Ad Litem, Thatcher is an advocate for the children in the court system when the question of their guardianship is up in the air. When she started two years ago, she wasn’t confident about how to approach children at a time when few things in a child’s life are stable, but she quickly developed an aphorism.
“I have always had the motto of, ‘They have to know you care before they care what you know,’” said Thatcher, who has served as a Guardian Ad Litem for nearly two years. “Just get them to talk as much as you can. Then start asking the harder questions.”
Things are continually changing, which is disconcerting enough to an adult, but utterly terrifying to a small child. One of the few constants, however, is their Guardian Ad Litem, the person who stands up and speaks for the children in court.
“That is going to be the one person that is going to stay with the child all the way to the end,” said Shawn Moore, the Guardian Ad Litem program supervisor in Haywood County.
Whenever a family ends up in court for whatever reason — typically substance abuse or domestic violence — a judge must decide the fate of the children. Let them return home, stay at home (if they have not been removed), or let them remain with a relative or in foster care.
What is pervasive in these cases is adults claiming to know what is best for the child or children in question, but the children need someone who can speak with their voice, someone who has gotten to know them, their wishes and the particulars of their home situation.
That is where Guardian Ad Litems come in. They are trained advocates for abused and neglected children who perform an independent investigation separate from the Department of Social Services or any other interested party.
“Our first priority is talking with the children, if they can talk,” Thatcher said. “We try to interview them. We interview with the parent.”
Guardians, who are all volunteers, will also go to the children’s schools and talk to their teachers as well as talk to caseworkers at DSS. At the end, they must compile a report for the judge and make recommendation as to what they believe is best for the child or children involved.
Children can talk to their Guardian Ad Litem about where they want to live, about their life at home and the possible physical or sexual abuse they have endured. First, though, the guardian usually has some barriers to breakdown. The kids have sometimes learned not to trust adults or been taught to lie — each child is different.
“It just depends on the child and the willingness, and motivation, and the fear,” Thatcher said, especially if abuse is involved. “They know that will separate them from their parents.”
The guardians also keep the children updated on the progress of their case, though they try to shield children from knowing too many of their parent’s transgression since most are under the age of 11.
“I try to inform them as much as I can. There is a fine line,” Thatcher said. “When the kids are in court, it is difficult because they are going to hear everything.”
If a child is older than 10, he or she can decide whether to go court when their parents appear before a judge.
In general, everyone involved, including the Guardian Ad Litem office, is working toward bringing the family back together, if possible.
“The goal is always to try to reunify the kids with the parents,” Moore said. “That is a very traumatic thing to pull a child away.”
At any time, the Guardian Ad Litem office in Haywood County is working on behalf of about 100 kids, a decrease from earlier this year when it had about 130 children. It also currently has 60 active Guardian Ad Litems, who devote about seven hours a month to each case.
“It varies from volunteer to volunteer, depending on how much they have going on in there own lives,” Moore said.
The program is always looking for volunteers in any of the seven westernmost counties. Guardians typically work with program contacts in their home county.
“There is always going to be a need for more volunteers,” Moore said. “There’s always going to be new cases coming in unfortunately. It is a sad thing.”
Program supervisors are also willing to work with volunteers if they prefer to only work with girls, with a certain age group or don’t want to work on sexual abuse cases. All Guardian Ad Litems must undergo 30 hours of training and an extensive background check before they can be sworn in as court officials.
To learn more about the Guardian Ad Litem program or to become a volunteer, visit www.nccourts.org/citizens/gal/default.asp.