Abused and neglected children have already been through a lot. They could use a little help, especially when it comes to voicing their best interests in court proceedings — and that’s where the Guardian ad Litem program proves invaluable.
However, in Sampson County, the ratio of advocates to children is at a state low, according to Guardian ad Litem officials, prompting a call for volunteers willing to be a part of the program and help give a voice to children who need to be heard.
Established by state law in 1983, the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program has been serving abused and neglected children for 35 years. 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.
That team has full party status in trial and appellate proceedings.
All Guardian ad Litem advocates are trained, supervised and supported by program staff in each county of the state. Officials said the collaborative model of GAL attorney advocates, volunteers and staff ensures that all North Carolina children who are alleged by the Department of Social Services to have been abused or neglected receive GAL legal advocacy services.
Recently, there has been a significant shortage in those volunteers in Sampson.
Lori McClain, district administrator for GAL, talked about the importance of the program during a recent Sampson Board of Commissioners meeting and lamented the low number of GALs in Sampson. The program, she said, is urgently seeking volunteers from the county to serve as child advocates within the court system.
“I want to reach out to the citizens of Sampson County to say ‘we need you help,’” she implored. “It’s critical. In Sampson County, we probably have the lowest rate of volunteers to children in care in the state.”
There are 124 children in Sampson County who are in the Department of Social Services’ system as abuse or neglected. Of those, 46 have been assigned a Guardian Ad Litem and there are still 78 who have not been assigned a GAL advocate.
“The requirement is wanting to help children,” McClain said simply.
Statewide, there are approximately 5,075 volunteers serving 17,000 children, said McClain. They attend 65,042 child abuse and neglect hearings annually, and offer close to half a million hours of volunteer service, she cited.
“If you put a dollar amount to that, it’s incredible how much volunteer time the citizens of North Carolina give to the children, and it’s a benefit to the state that helps the state,” said McClain.
And it’s not just about saving money.
“Volunteers mean so much more than millions of dollars saved,” a message on the N.C. Guardian ad Litem website states. “When someone gives their time and energy away to a cause, it points to the strength of that cause, infusing it with an integrity that can’t be bought. More importantly, freely giving of time to vulnerable children in need signifies worth to them in a way that paid employees simply cannot.”
A volunteer can also draw from their own experiences and expertise, bring a fresh perspective and insight to cases that are often complex and multifaceted. The more people who get involved with helping abused and neglected children, the further the message of child abuse prevention can go and the more children can be helped.
“We believe our volunteers can make a difference not just in children’s lives, but in their communities and the world at large. That’s why we believe in volunteers, and why our mission will continue to be equipping them to advocate for children in court,” the GAL message concluded.
McClain drove that point home to commissioners, while also introducing Sampson’s Guardian Ad Litem supervisor Ken Chambers.
“We look for people who have clean criminal histories, who don’t have any felony convictions, who don’t have crimes of violence and who have never had (Child Protective Services) involvement,” McClain said.
Child advocates are required to undergo a criminal background check, and the GAL agency provides a comprehensive training and assistance to these advocates.
Those wishing to volunteer can go online to volunteerforgal.org or contact Ken Chambers at 910-596-6621. The Guardian Ad Litem office is located upstairs from the Register of Deeds Office within the Sampson County Courthouse Annex on West Elizabeth Street.
“Thank you for your willingness to come share this,” said Sampson Board of Commissioners chairman Clark Wooten. “Hopefully that will help facilitate getting that message out into the community.”
Managing Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.