Who Are We?
- Ordinary men and women with a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences.
- Everyone of us feels we can make a difference in the life of a child.
- Many of us work part time and/or full time
- All of us have a compassion and commitment to act on behalf of children.
What We Do Matters
- Guardians impact the outcome of the legal proceedings
- Kids are adopted, relatives are found that can take the children
- Programs are identified to help a child with his/or her special needs
The Guardian Ad Litem Volunteer Job Description:
- A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a trained community volunteer
- GAL are appointed by a district court judge
- GAL investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children petitioned into the court system by the Department of Social Services (DSS).
- The GAL recommendations focus on the needs of the child.
- The GAL advocates for a permanent and safe home within the shortest time possible.
Activities of the Guardian ad Litem
- Visits the child and keeps the child informed about the court proceedings.
- Communicates with the Attorney Advocate to develop legal strategies to further the best interests of the child client.
- Gathers and assesses independent information on a consistent basis about the child to recommend a resolution that is in the child's best interest.
- Interviews the parents, guardians, caretakers, social workers and other service providers and reads records related to the family.
- Seeks cooperative solutions with other participants in the child's case.
- Writes fact-based, child-focused reports for court hearings.
- Attends and participates in court hearings and other related meetings to advocate for a permanent plan which serves the child's best interest.
- Testifies, if needed, to inform the court of changes in the child's situation.
- Ensures that the court knows the child's wishes.
- Keeps all records and information confidential.
- Monitors court-ordered services and keeps the court informed about the needs of the child.
- Consults with local program staff for support and guidance.
Kaye Dickey - "I Love the Courtroom"
Forty years as a legal secretary and private investigator gave Kaye Dickey the skills and enthusiasm she brings to her work as a Guardian ad Litem. "I love the courtroom," she enthuses.
Kaye started her GAL volunteer work in Richmond County 15 years ago and has been a well-known advocate for children in the Pender County courthouse for these past eleven years. Kaye likes working in Pender because, as a small rural county, there's a camaraderie amongst the GALs and with the attorneys and judges. The downside is that Pender does not have the resources many of these parents and children need. They have to drive into Wilmington to find parenting classes, counseling or rehab services."
What changes has Kaye seen in her eleven years in Pender? "Well, there is as much neglect and sexual abuse as ever," she says. "But we are seeing more cocaine now where before marijuana and alcohol were the drugs most commonly abused."
The biggest change she's seen, however, is in the judicial system and politics of Pender. "Because of a growing number of successful appeals over the past two or three years, judges today are hesitant to rule as boldly as before."
"It is harder now to terminate parental rights. Attorneys want an appeal win on their record and judges don't want their rulings to be appealed - so where does that leave the children?" Kaye has learned a few lessons along the way: "If a parent truly wants his or her kids back, you'll know it in the first three month", she says. "On the other hand, if parents are cooperative, I love helping them do what they need to do to get their family back; like getting a GED, finding housing, getting away from an abusive situation."
Her dream for Pender County is the establishment of a home where mothers and their small children could stay for six months to get the parenting skills, resources and support they need to successfully launch themselves back into a safe and nurturing life together.
Judy Neblett - "What We Do Matters"
Judy Neblett has been a Guardian ad Litem for fifteen years and has stayed with it because "GALs really do make a difference. Maybe it is a small difference. Perhaps it is intangible or doesn't become visible for years, but what we do matters."
Judy took on one girl at age four and was her GAL until she turned 18. It was a rough fourteen years for them both and they parted on not the best terms. But a few weeks ago Judy went to the childcare center to pick up her grandchild and discovered that her old client was working there. They hugged. The girl now has a job, an apartment, is happy, and is grateful to Judy for her years of support.
Before moving to Wilmington Judy lived in Atlanta for twenty-two years and did volunteer work with children in the juvenile detention system and with a poverty rights group. She was looking for a similar volunteer opportunity here when she heard about the Guardian ad Litem program from a friend.
She's never looked back.
What changes has Judy seen during her years as a GAL? "Well, for one, DSS is more creative with the cases now than in the old days and I have learned a lot from my social workers."
"Second, we have so many cases in court now that I applaud the recent change to two court days. It's a great ideA."
On a less positive note, Judy is discouraged by the caliber of the mental health care available to children and families in New Hanover County. She blames this on the failure of mental health system reforms and the low Medicaid payment rates.
"These families and children need good care and it is just not there," she explains. "The mental health situation is appalling."
"My favorite part of being a GAL is the investigation phase, when you try to get to know all the people involved with the child and how they relate to the child. The reports we get at the beginning of the case are just the tip of the iceberg," says Judy. "Once you get all the background information, you can better determine what truly is in the best interest of the child."
- Q. What is a Guardian ad Litem?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Q. What is the time commitment for a Guardian ad Litem?
- A. The initial training program takes 25-30 hours to complete, offered in a variety of schedules for both daytime and evening formats. After you are assigned a case, you will spend 10 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Q. How is the Guardian ad Litem different from a social worker?
- A. The social worker is an agent of the Department of Social Services (DSS). The Department of Social Services also has legal custody of the child or children involved. DSS must, by federal and state laws, focus on the initially preserving the family unit while ensuring the safety of the child(ren). Everyone involved is focused on securing a safe, permanent home for each child. This goal can result in a number of scenarios such as: being able to return to parents, placement with relatives, adoption, or custody to foster parents or others. As a Guardian ad Litem, you focus entirely on the child, advocating for special services, investigating and identifying appropriate community resources, and being the child's voice and best interest advocate in court.
Qualifications of a GAL
- A sincere concern for the well-being of children
- A continuing commitment to advocate for a child until a safe and permanent home is obtained.
- The volunteer must also be a mature adult of sound character with good verbal and written communication skills.
- A GAL must be objective and non-judgmental and be able to interact with people of various educational, economic and ethnic backgrounds.
Training and Supervision of the GALs
The North Carolina Volunteer Guardian ad Litem training curriculum is taught by certified and experienced GAL trainers or staff.
Volunteers also receive continuing education on advocacy issues. GAL Volunteers are supervised by the program staff.