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Guardian ad litem program seeking volunteers to be voices for children

SALISBURY — The local guardian ad litem program is seeking volunteers for the upcoming training session.

The agency is mandated by the state legislature, said Mandy Flores, program specialist.

“A lot of people don’t know what we do,” Flores said. “We train and supervise community volunteers to be child advocates.”

The program’s district has a need for more volunteers in both Rowan and Cabarrus County, Flores said. Volunteers are assigned to either Cabarrus or Rowan, which are two separate judicial districts. Rowan County currently has about 50 children without volunteers, and Cabarrus has around 30.

Lately, the program has seen increases in the number of children coming into the system, Flores said.

Each foster child who carries allegations of abuse or neglect is appointed a guardian ad litem by the court. Then, the person is a third party, independent part of the case. They talk to involved parties and make a court report to be used as evidence in the hearings for the children.

“Essentially, our entire job is to be voices for the children,” Flores said. “We make recommendations to the court on what we feel is in the best interests of the child.”

She says that the entire idea of the program, which was formed in the 1980s, is that the children in the case have a say in what is happening to them.

Training was stopped during the pandemic, Flores said, since it is usually face-to-face.

The program is having a virtual training session beginning June 16. The six-week program will have online asynchronous training modules, as well as a meeting together with other trainees once a week, Flores said.

Virginia Steelman is in her third year of being a guardian ad litem. As part of the program, she sees the children she is assigned to at least once a month. During the pandemic, she’s been seeing them virtually, she says.

Steelman tries to make it clear to the children that she wants to know what they want. Then, she can communicate that to the judge in their case. On top of that, she gets to know the people in the children’s lives, too.

“I’m really establishing long-term relationships with these kids, their foster families and their biological parents,” Steelman said.

Either way, “our No. 1 primary goal is to advocate for the child,” she said.

Steelman said she thinks about the role as an investigator when she talks with the children, family members, teachers, therapists and others connected to the children to create the report.

“What we provide is vital,” Flores said. “Without our program, the judge has no other opinion than the Department of Social Services.”

The court reports provided by volunteers are entirely focused on the children, Flores said.

Steelman also noted that becoming a guardian ad litem can be a good first step for anyone interested in being a foster parent. The position is also flexible enough for those with full-time jobs, families and other commitments, like herself, she said.

“This gives you a really amazing glimpse into the system and how it works, without the commitment,” she said.

Flores echoed the flexible nature of the volunteering as well.

“You can absolutely do it. If you’re passionate about children, or passionate about this community in general, then this program is for you,” she said.

Volunteers must be at least 18 and not have a criminal record, Flores said.

If you’d like to volunteer, go to the Rowan Guardian ad Litem Facebook page to find more information, Flores said. A volunteer application is available at www.volunteerforgal.org.

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