Vol. 17, No. 1 • November 2012

Guardians ad Litem Play a Vital Role

Guardians ad litem have the power to influence what the court decides about children in foster care. All foster parents should know what GALs do, how they benefit children, and how to work with them effectively.

Who Are GALs?
GALs are trained volunteers appointed by judges to represent children's best interests in child abuse and neglect cases. GALs conduct independent investigations into children's circumstances to determine their needs and what resources are available to meet these needs. Through their advocacy, GALs help move children out of the court system in a timely manner and into safe, permanent homes.

GAL volunteers come from all walks of life. The main criterion for becoming a GAL is a sincere desire to advocate for maltreated children involved with the juvenile court system. GAL applicants must complete a written application, a personal interview, and undergo a criminal record check. The applicant then completes 25-30 hours of training, which includes court observation. The training emphasizes that every case is factually different and that as GALs reach out to each new person they must remain neutral, calm, objective, respectful, and keep the information they receive confidential.

GAL volunteers are supervised by GAL program staff. These professionals are available to assist volunteer child advocates with their investigations, offer resources, and provide guidance regarding their duties. The GAL program is run by the NC Administrative Office of the Courts, which recruits, screens, trains, and supervises GAL volunteers.

What GALs Do
When a county DSS takes legal action to protect the safety of a child, a district court judge appoints a trained GAL volunteer and an attorney advocate to provide team representation to the child.

A GAL's overall duty is to protect and promote the child's best interests and to advocate for a safe, permanent home in the shortest time possible. GALs are responsible for:

  1. Investigating to determine the facts, the child's needs, and the resources available in the family and community;
  2. Recommending to the court services and interventions to ensure the child's safety and to ensure the child achieves permanency as soon as possible; and
  3. Giving evidence and examining witnesses in court.

GALs have a lot of latitude with regard to how they gather information. Some talk with foster parents, teachers, parents, relatives and others. Often they attend meetings at DSS or at the child's school. Monthly face-to-face contact between the GAL and the child is recommended, when feasible.

By statute and court order, GALs are authorized to obtain any information or reports they consider relevant to the case. When GALs exercise this authority, they present the court appointment order that contains that authorization. The person or agency from whom information is sought may want a copy of the order.

Any agency or professional from whom a guardian ad litem seeks information should provide the information promptly, unless the GAL does not have a court order authorizing him or her to obtain confidential information or federal law or regulations prohibit disclosure of the information.

By law, GALs must protect the confidentiality of information they receive. Therefore, the GAL cannot disclose confidential information to foster parents. If foster parents have questions about the court case, they should contact DSS.

What Makes a Good GAL?
GALs provide advocacy in varied ways, based on personal style and guidance from their supervisors. Often a good GAL is described as someone who is in the child's life and is accessible, focused on the child's best interest, and committed to finding solutions for the child.

Examples of GAL volunteers' deep commitment to children are easy to find. For example, Elaine Morris, Mecklenburg County's GAL program supervisor, says she is amazed by GAL volunteer Amanda Gaughan's dedication. "Over the past year Amanda has managed cases that have included two very ill children, two long, drawn out TPR hearings, and multiple systemic issues--all while working full-time and moving into a new home."

Working Effectively with GALs
Like foster parents, GALs are community members who make a huge difference in children's lives. Here are suggestions for working with them to benefit children and families:

  • Share information. Because they live with the child, foster parents know how children are adjusting to separation from home, interacting with other children, performing in school, and doing in other areas. Foster parents should share this important information with GALs.
  • Invite them in. It is helpful when foster parents make room in their schedules so GALs can visit the children in their home.
  • Understand the limitations. GALs are prohibited from disclosing confidential information to foster parents.
  • Support the GAL program. Foster parents are some of the best recruiters of quality GALs. If you know someone you would want to see advocating for children in court, or someone tells you they admire you as a foster parent but don't feel fostering is right for them, tell them about the GAL program and ask them to consider volunteering.
  • Learn more. To learn more about this program and how you can help, visit www.ncgal.org.
Perspectives of North Carolina's GALs

"Often children's voices are not heard because they do not speak for themselves. Sometimes when they do speak, no one listens. As a GAL, it is my job to make an unbiased decision as to what I feel is in the best interest of the child or children involved. This decision might not be what DSS is recommending or what the parents want. Again, it has to be based on what I feel is in the best interest of the child."
--Mary Alexander, Duplin County

"My guardian ad litem experiences have reinforced that children are capable of great things if given the chance to develop and grow."
-- Greg Howe, Wake County

"If I had known how rewarding and fulfilling being a guardian ad litem was, I would have volunteered the minute I was old enough. I am thankful for the program, I am thankful for the volunteers, but most of all, I am thankful for the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child."
-- Susan Brown, Cumberland County

"Each of us has something we can do to be of service. There are children in our communities who need someone to speak for them. They need to know they are not alone in a very scary world. Every time I hug a child that has more hope today than he or she had the day before I feel all things are possible for that child.

This year, I have seen a child who I thought might never come out of her shell begin to take the first tentative steps toward trust and belief. This child, who has been so cruelly treated and so horribly abused, is finally accepting the kindness offered to her and beginning to believe that she can trust again. It has taken nearly two years to get her to accept a gentle pat on the back without recoiling, and for the first time a genuine smile now emerges when I come to visit. The joy this brings cannot be measured.

That smile lights up my day in a way that cannot be described."
-- Mary White, Duplin County

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~