I first heard about the Guardian ad Litem program when I moved to Florida 20 years ago. There were frequent commercials about it on TV and I always thought, “That is a really neat program…maybe one day I’ll volunteer!”
About 17 years went by, during which time I homeschooled my daughter, lost my husband and went back into the workplace, transitioning through a series of pretty challenging jobs. After nine years as a single mom, I got remarried and was able to start working part-time from home, freeing up my days for personal pursuits I had put on hold for many years.
A good friend who owns a small newspaper in town asked me to do a story on the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program in our community, and I happily complied. I interviewed some fantastic volunteers, men and women of all ages and backgrounds, and walked away thinking, “Wow, that’s really cool but really hard. I don’t think it’s the right fit for me.”
But a couple of years later I heard a presentation on the plight of foster children in my community and a voice in my head said loud and clear, “What is your excuse not to get involved?” That very day I emailed the GAL volunteer coordinator in my county, and a month later I attended my first training class.
The Guardian ad Litem program, in some states called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) for Children, is a national program that provides court-appointed volunteers to represent foster children in the court system. The goal is to make sure every child who is removed from their home finds a safe and permanent place to live and thrive, whether that is ultimately back with their rehabilitated parents, with relatives or through adoption. In the meantime, they live in a group home or more preferably, with a loving foster family.
Sadly, many children find themselves in caretaking but not especially nurturing foster homes. Many teens end up in group-homes, since there are few families willing to take in older and more troubled kids. Children also end up with relatives who are almost as dysfunctional as the parent(s) they were removed from.
For me, the plight of these children is always a weight on my heart. To make matters worse, in the county where I live, only 48% of the children who need a GAL actually get one. That means there are thousands of kids whose oversight of care is left to highly overburdened case managers and foster parents who are often desperate for someone to help them navigate the judicial system. In both my cases, the foster parents requested a GAL to walk alongside them and their foster child.
As a GAL, it’s my role to make sure the foster children I represent don’t get lost in the highly overburdened (an understatement) legal and social service system. A GAL volunteer stays with each case until it is closed and the child is secure in a safe and permanent home.
During volunteer training, you are told a GAL will spend about 10 hours a month on a case. I have two, and I have far exceeded that number every month on each of them. I’ve met amazing volunteers who have many more cases than me. Some have cases that include five or six siblings—and not all living in the same foster homes—and I can’t fathom the amount of time they selflessly sacrifice because their hearts are so committed to their kids.
GAL’s are required to visit each child once a month; that can be in their foster home or at daycare or school. I’ve also visited my children during supervised visits with their biological parents so I can observe their interactions. I love seeing them: I watch them play, play with them, and grab as many snuggles as I can. It’s such a tug on my heart when I walk into their preschool or home and have them run to me for a hug.
I also come alongside the foster parents to educate, inform and help them in any way possible. This equates to many texts, emails and phone calls with them and a unique friendship arises out of that communication. I’m grateful for the amazing foster parents I work with—truly selfless people who are willing to turn their families upside down for a hurting child.
Additionally, GAL’s assist the case manager in any way possible, as their caseloads are huge and they simply can’t stay on top of every detail of every case. There have been multiple times when I’ve provided a case manager—as well as my GAL supervisor and the GAL attorney—with information they weren’t aware of, and I’m grateful I can do that so everyone stays up-to-date. Honestly, this can be frustrating, as many things that are the responsibility of a case manager fail to get done in a timely manner. I am not afraid to text and email my case managers and press them until I see some action, but at the same time I need to be sensitive to their overloaded schedules. It’s a hard balance because my role is to fight for the child, and theirs is to fight for the whole family, and frankly, sometimes I find it hard to muster grace and compassion for the parents.
The last time I went to court, I spent two and a half hours listening to testimonies with my heart racing, silently praying non-stop that the judge would do what was right for the child. We were blessed that day as that happened, but I’ve been in court many times when I walk away wondering how the judge could possibly rule the way they did, and worrying about the extension of time my children will be in the foster care system. Cases are supposed to get resolved—meaning the child finds permanent placement—in a year, but I haven’t seen that happen in fewer than three or four. It can be infuriating and heartbreaking to see children linger in temporary homes. The longer they’re there, the more they bond with the foster family and the harder the transition is back to a parent or other permanent guardian.
Both my foster children are very young—a little boy who is one and a half and a little girl who turned 3 in March. I became their guardian at ages 2 months and 9 months, respectively, and have enjoyed loving on them and watching them grow and thrive. I’ve also worried and prayed for them when their cases appeared to take unexpected turns that I didn’t think were best for them. GALs who have older children often volunteer well beyond what’s required—taking their kids to soccer or dance practice, or out for a fun date of ice cream or shopping.
My first foster child—the little girl who is 3—was just adopted by the most amazing young couple. The event, held in the regular dependency courtroom and with the same judge I sometimes find myself disagreeing with, was unbelievably joyous. Many friends and family members came, the judge made jokes, everyone cheered, and I cried. I have been advocating for her since she was 9 months old and I couldn’t help but think of where this precious child might have ended up had not many people been fighting for her to have a safe and healthy life. She now has a forever family with loving parents and sisters, and a large and supportive extended family as well.
I have learned a lot about the foster care system and the court system through the process of being a GAL. It has been incredibly educational, but oftentimes very frustrating, since both are very overburdened. A judge cannot possibly know every detail of a case that a GAL does, and it’s not uncommon to have a case change case managers (I’ve had five on one of my cases) and judges.
For me, the plight of these children is always a weight on my heart.
According to CASA’s website, last year, more than 76,000 CASA and GAL volunteers helped more than 251,000 abused and neglected children find safe, permanent homes. That sounds like a lot, until you realize that more than 600,000 children were fostered last year and every single one of them needed and deserved to have a advocate, someone who represents their voice and needs in court. Because there are not enough volunteers, local programs typically only assign a GAL to their most difficult cases.
On that topic, I get periodic emails from the GAL office listing the children who need a GAL. I will tell you honestly that the first time I received one of these lists I was paralyzed for an hour after reading it. The stories are horrendous; the abuse children receive at the hands of parents who are violent, addicted to drugs or mentally ill are atrocious. I read every list I get, but it never gets easier.
People of all ages and backgrounds can be a Guardian ad Litems. I’ve met lots of retired schoolteachers, principals, nurses and business owners, as well as young people who are interested in related careers like social work or who simply love kids. A background check and fingerprinting is required, as well as a training program, and GAL’s must complete 12 hours of additional training each year. Fortunately, the local GAL offices are great at providing multiple opportunities for that, and many allow you to also watch online documentaries and training videos, or read relevant books to earn your hours.
If you’re interested in learning more, all GAL offices offer introductory/informational meetings to explain the program to potential volunteers. They’re usually listed online by county, so I encourage you to look one up in your area if you are curious. You can find a nationwide search tool for local CASA and GAL programs at the bottom of this page.
I’ve put my time into my foster children, but just as importantly, I’ve put my heart on the line for them. I hope both will benefit them long after I’m no longer a regular part of their lives.
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