Do you want to make a difference in a child’s life? That is the first basic requirement needed for the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program here in Sampson County. Sampson/Duplin GAL Program supervisor Patrick Giddeons is looking for volunteers who can commit to the time needed to help give children who have no voice a voice in the courts system.
What is a Guardian ad Litem? According to Giddeons, a GAL is a trained volunteer who is appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child, defined Giddeons. The GAL serves as an important voice for the child in court.
“We need volunteers from Sampson County desperately. Currently there are about 140 children under our jurisdiction in Sampson as compared to 40 in Duplin County. Yet of the total 46 volunteers that we now have, the majority are from Duplin County,” asserted Giddeons.
The North Carolina General Assembly established the Office of Guardian ad Litem Services in 1983 as a division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. When a petition alleging abuse or neglect of a juvenile is filed in district court, the judge appoints a volunteer GAL advocate and an attorney advocate to provide team representation to the child, who has full party status in trial and appellate proceedings. All GAL volunteers are trained, supervised and supported by program staff in each county of North Carolina.
The entire program is a collaborative effort involving the GAL attorney advocates, volunteers and staff. All North Carolina children who are alleged by the Department of Social Services to have been abused or neglected receive GAL legal advocacy services.
Giddeons explained that anyone with a clean criminal recor, and from all walks of life and a variety of professional, educational and ethnic backgrounds, can apply to be a volunteer. “There are no special education or experience required. We just need people with a true desire to help children to have a better life and make a difference in the child’s life. They give us that, we will give them everything else they need to be a GAL,” cited Giddeons.
Once a volunteer’s application has been received, the individual will be screened by the program staff and a criminal record check will be completed. Following final acceptance into the program, each volunteer is required to complete 30 hours of training before being sworn in by a judge and appointed to advocate on behalf of a child. Additional continuing education training on advocacy issues will be provided in conjunction to providing services to the child(ren) assigned to the GAL.
“There is no set number of children or cases that can be assigned to a volunteer. But the volunteer is given a choice to work with cases that match best for the volunteer and in the best interest of the child. Also we take into account the amount of time a certain volunteer may have to give to the program. Ideally we would like to have volunteers that will commit at least one year or two to the program. Some cases will run at least that long and some extend even longer. The best scenario would be someone who will make a long-term commitment to serve,” remarked Giddeons.
The GAL program supervisor stated that a volunteer could expect to spend about 6-8 hours a month working on each case until a child is placed in a permanent situation, however the length of time varies from each case. Many volunteers according to Giddeons work full-time, are students or retired. Most of the work can be done on the weekend, in the evening or on the telephone. However the volunteer will need to ensure their employer will grant permission to take off from work to allow the volunteer to appear in court which is about once every three to six months.
“The GAL’s responsibilities include digging for details. This is were the volunteer has to leave their own personal beliefs and prejudices at the door and be ready to objectively and non-judgmentally observes and determine what is in the best possible interest of the child they have been assigned. They have to go beyond just looking at the onion; they have to peel off the layers and see what the facts are because the facts are all we deal with in each case. They must get to know the child and interview the parents, caretakers, social workers, teachers and other service providers. Time is also spent reading records related to the child and the family. As the child’s advocate and voice, the GAL must report to the court and communicate with the GAL attorney advocate in order that decisions are made in the child’s best interest. The process is ongoing,” explained Giddeons. “I continue to be amazed at our volunteers who we ask so much because they keep giving even when it seems we have taken all they have to give,” added the program supervisor.
Pam High has served as a sworn GAL in Sampson County. However due to a current obligation that would be a conflict of interest, she has stepped down as an advocate for a short while. High shared her feelings regarding being a GAL.
“Why did I want to be a GAL? I heard about the program from a friend and contacted Patrick to learn more about the program. I feel that someone needs to be a voice for these children without a voice to be heard and I felt that I could help meet that need. That is why I became involved,” said High.
In responding to the question What did she get out of being a GAL, High stated that she received the satisfaction of knowing that she had helped a child as they were confronted with having to deal with the upsetting and unknown world of the court system.
“It is a real fulfilment to know you are helping a child that will have lasting affect on their lives. Volunteering is a worthwhile opportunity for anyone what would like to see a child’s life made better. I encourage anyone to become involved. It is such a blessing for the child and for the volunteer as well,” expressed. High.
The Guardian Ad Litem Program is now accepting applications for volunteer child advocates.
Currently, more than 140 children are involved in Sampson County court through no fault of their own. This training will teach future child advocate how to independently investigate the best interest of children and report to the court. The next training class will be held on Feb. 21, 28 and March 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Sampson Community College. Applications are available on the website at www.gal4kids.org. For more information, call Patrick Giddeons at 910-275-7102 or email Patrick.L.Giddeons@nccourts.org.
To contact Billy Todd, call 910-592-8137 ext. 117, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.