Nalini Joseph: Help children through Guardian ad Litem
By Nalini Joseph
When you turn on the TV and the news flashes a story about someone who was arrested for drug possession or a violent crime such as homicide, do you ever wonder if the person shown on the screen has a child?
When I look through the Salisbury Post, I wonder how many unnamed children have been affected by the actions of their parent who is listed as the perpetrator of a crime. Where are those children now? Are they are living in a safe place?
The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program offers a volunteer opportunity that most other volunteer programs in the country cannot offer. Most people have no idea how children move through the foster care and court systems. Imagine being an 8-year-old and having to leave your home, your school, your friends and everything you have ever known. Escorted by a social worker and a policeman in the back of a police car, you are taken to what the social worker calls a foster home. You meet a foster parent and a group of rowdy children whom you have never met before. The social worker tells you that she’ll come and check on you tomorrow and that the judge that is going to hear your “case” will tell her when you can see your mom and dad again.
Enter your Guardian ad Litem volunteer. Your volunteer comes to visit you in your new foster home. He smiles and introduces himself as the person who will go to court, meet your parents and tell the judge how you’re doing. Most importantly, he will tell the judge what you wish for because he is your voice in court. He goes to court in your place so that you don’t have to go to court unless you want to.
The GAL volunteer job is complex. Navigating the social services and court systems is no easy task. The undulations in a child’s case can be a frustrating experience, but it can also be an exhilarating experience. GAL’s sometimes sit in court for hours, just to hear at the end of the day that their child’s case will be continued. GAL’s also sometimes sit in court for hours, watching their child’s case unfold as parent attorneys, the GAL attorney and the attorney for the state (Department of Social Services) argue about what is best for the parent and the child.
Sometimes, at the end of a lengthy hearing, the GAL breathes a big sigh of relief as the judge agrees with the GAL, ordering that the plan best suited for the child is a plan of adoption. The GAL has usually worked for months, and sometimes years, to convince the judge that the child belongs in a forever home with loving parents.
The GAL follows the child from the inception of the case to closure. There are many highs and lows; the child’s parents often inch towards reunification and then give up and give in to their lifestyles that took their children away from them: often a drug habit, a relationship fraught with domestic violence, prostitution or other criminal activities.
Conversely, things can turn out very differently for the child that the GAL advocates for. It’s not uncommon for parents to work with their social worker and the courts so that they rehabilitate themselves. They maintain stable housing, stable employment, complete parenting classes and substance abuse treatment so that they can bring their children back into their care.
When the family comes to the end of their long and painful journey that ends in successful reunification, there are tears into everyone’s eyes. The judge’s voice cracks as she congratulates the parents, the GAL and the social worker for their hard work. The attorney that fought so hard for the child joins with the attorney who fought so hard for the parent; together they celebrate the success of the case.
To learn more about becoming a voice for a child in our community, go to volunteerforgal.org. GAL volunteers are trained extensively to advocate for children who are abused and neglected.
Nalini Joseph is a Salisbury resident. Email her at email@example.com.