Volunteering as a guardian ad litem can help children in county child protection cases
Almost everyone in our community knows the basic details of the death last month of four-year-old Demond Reed, allegedly at the hands of his cousin and caregiver Carla Poole. It has been reported that her children were witnesses to the beating and were forced to assist their mother in this crime. We know her children were taken into foster care upon her arrest.
What is less well known or discussed is what is happening with these four young people, ranging in age from four to 11. They are involved in a child protection case that will determine their future living arrangements and case planning to deal with the psychological and emotional effects of what they did and saw on those fateful days.
Most people do not know that these victim children were assigned a child advocate, or guardian ad litem (GAL), to represent their interests in court. This volunteer citizen will be one of three voices (along with the County attorney representing child protection and the lawyer representing Ms. Poole) the judge listens to as lifelong decisions are made for these youth. In some states, volunteer GALs go by the name of court-appointed special advocates (CASAs).
Becoming a guardian ad litem is a way you can make a difference in cases like these, where people otherwise feel a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Assisting children and families dealing with allegations of abuse, neglect and delinquency is a volunteer opportunity with deep and lasting impact, and there is great need in both Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
As with other systems, children of color are over-represented in child protection matters. Neither Twin Cities GAL program currently has a volunteer population that reflects the culture of children in care. In Hennepin County, for example, less than 20 of the more than 250 volunteers are Black, and Black children represent 37 percent of youth needing advocates. There is also a critical need for men in both programs.
Thinking about working in the court system may cause you stress, especially if you have negative perceptions or experiences. It may also seem daunting if it is an unfamiliar setting (if you do not have a social work or legal background). Training and support are provided for free, and the majority of our volunteers have never been in a courtroom before. A full-time staff member is assigned to each volunteer for additional guidance. Something to keep in mind is that children come into the system every day, and they need culturally competent adult advocates. If not you, then who?
Volunteers come from many walks of life, from being retired teachers or nurses, to bus drivers, cashiers and clerks. The key factor they all share is experience with children (parenting or other personal, volunteer or professional situations where they assisted youth), common sense and a desire to help. Most adults in our community share the qualifications to participate in this program.
An extensive free training program is offered to assist candidates in developing skills to become strong advocates for children’s best interest, such as collaborating with social workers and other professionals, understanding rules and regulations, developing recommendations for judges, writing court reports, and interviewing children and adults in a case.
Cases are assigned based on each individual’s idea about what children they can best serve, specific skill sets they have, and court dates they are available. The average time a case takes is seven hours a month. The minimal requirement is visiting the child once a month, contacting service providers by phone, fax or email, and submitting a one-page activity update. Court reports are required when necessary. Mileage and parking are reimbursed.
Volunteers are asked to stay with the program at least 18 months to be a consistent presence through the child protection portion of the case — children may have multiple social workers — so GALs have a unique opportunity to develop ongoing relationships critical to making sound recommendations.
Grace Jones is a valuable member of the Hennepin County group of guardians ad litem. Of her experience, she says, “When my two great nephews were put in foster care, I was able to see firsthand the roles of a guardian [ad litem]. Within three months I signed up for training, and I’m now a very active guardian with two years’ experience. Having the ability to fight for a child’s best interest is very rewarding. I believe in the program wholeheartedly!”
Jones currently has four cases with six children and has served 19 children in the last 24 months. She is assisting children much like Demond Reed and his cousins. Please consider joining her in advocating for abused and neglected children in our communities.
For information about how you can become a court advocate, call 612-348-6824, or go to Babalu’s (800 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis) on Wednesday, March 19, anytime between 6-9 pm to attend a child advocacy networking event.
Michelle Johnson is the volunteer coordinator for Hennepin County’s GAL program.