DOBSON — When children are removed from homes by the Surry County Department of Social Services (DSS) for neglect or other reasons and placed in foster care, court-appointed volunteers serve as a “voice” to safeguard their interests.
On paper that can be a wonderful concept — having someone to meet with and support children who understands their needs, listens to their wishes and makes sure these are met during court sessions.
But in reality there are now not enough volunteers in the local Guardian ad Litem program to serve as advocates for abused and neglected children by monitoring their care and future needs, says a program official who calls the situation “desperate.”
“I have 23 wonderful volunteers who step up to take children’s cases, to be their voice in court — but we need 20 more in Surry County,” explained Kate Appler, Guardian ad Litem district administrator for the county. Thirty children need advocates out of 87 now in the program.
“We have been part of the support system for children since 1983 in North Carolina — the state Legislature decided that it was important to have this advocacy for our state’s children,” added Appler, who has been local administrator for more than three years.
“The legislature decided that it would be an outreach program using volunteers as the advocates.”
More cases today
The need for court-appointed advocates to represent children from troubled situations is on the increase, mirroring problems in society as a whole.
Surry County’s neglect and abuse cases have grown over the past number of years to the point that the local Guardian ad Litem staff has many children who have no volunteers to take their case. For Appler’s staff, that means juggling the need to see children, oversee the volunteers and try to recruit and train new ones.
Contrary to television crime shows, neglect is the number one reason children are removed from homes, not physical or sexual abuse.
“Eighty-five to 90 percent of the cases have drugs involved,” Appler said Thursday.
“The people who have drug issues can also have mental health issues,” the administrator said. “Mental health and substance abuse, I think, are hand in hand.”
Those societal ills that are to blame collectively are making the task of advocating for children caught up in the turmoil more challenging.
“Cases are more complex than they used to be because of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health,” Appler said, pointing out that children in such situations can see and know things about drugs they shouldn’t have to know.
Making a difference
When the DSS determines that children and their parents need services that require the kids to be placed outside the home due to abuse or neglect, a Guardian ad Litem gets involved.
Those volunteers visit the children, talk with them, find out what they miss, how they are feeling about the situation and generally try to improve the lot of those removed from homes, who range in age from babies to teens.
The volunteers see the children regularly and advocate in court for needs they might have, and their wishes.
Advocates are required to see the children every month, write court reports and attend court when their cases are heard, generally three times a year.
At times, helping the children can involve the simpler aspects of life.
Appler relayed one story in which a youth was worried about his dog, explaining that when children were removed from the home involved, no one knew what happened to their pet.
This can be a tremendous worry for a child, but not on the radar when working to get families the services to enable them to reunite, Appler acknowledged. As it turns out, the dog had been taken to the county animal shelter and given away, but that relieved the fears of the boy who could be assured the animal was happy.
“We hope that those who have six to eight hours per month to support children in this situation will consider volunteering,” Appler urged.
To become an advocate, a person must visit the website www.volunteerforgal.org, complete an application online and then the staff will arrange an interview. Criminal and reference checks are required for new Guardians ad Litem.
Thirty hours of training is needed to be a volunteer, with a session to start on May 23 at The Pilot Center in Pilot Mountain and run on Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. for six weeks.
This training is partly online and partly in a classroom setting, with participants required to know how to use a computer.
When finished, a volunteer is sworn in by a District Court judge to become a Guardian ad Litem.
People of all walks of life now serve in the program, from college graduates with a criminal justice background to those who only attended high school.
A main requirement for volunteers is not having a criminal record or a history of social services removing their own children from homes.
“You just have to have a heart for children,” Appler said of another.
Possibly spending a day in court can be a concern for would-be Guardians ad Litem with jobs, Appler said.
And sometimes they avoid volunteering for unfounded reasons, she said. For one, many people fear being in a situation that might be dangerous.
However, when a Guardian ad Litem sees the children, they have been removed from such situations and are with grandparents, other relatives or family friends or are in foster care.
They might be traumatized by the home situation they just left, or maybe not even understand why they were taken away.
Another misconception is that the children will be sad, with people saying they can’t handle seeing sad children. Generally, the children are sad about not seeing their parents, but smile and play just like others, according to Appler.
Youths react differently depending on their ages. “They miss friends, school, especially when they are teenagers,” Appler mentioned.
“The children in care are always happy to see the Guardian ad Litem volunteers, though,” the administrator assured.
“This is a more involved volunteerism, but it is also a more impactful volunteerism, one that might make all the difference in a child’s life forever,” she commented.
“The impact you can make in some child’s life is tremendous,” Appler said of volunteers possibly helping them avoid the kind of problems plaguing their parents.
“It’s for a child, but it’s also for the future of the community.”
Those interested in learning more about the Guardian ad Litem program can contact Kate Appler at 336-386-3721 in Surry County or by email at Kate Appler@nccourts.org.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.