Guardian ad Litem program needs more volunteer advocates
The Guardian ad Litem program (GAL) needs more volunteer advocates, especially in Stanly and Montgomery counties.
The program, which was created in 1983 by the state General Assembly, is part of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and serves abused and neglected children throughout the state.
Stanly is part of District 20, which also covers Union and Montgomery counties.
A GAL advocate is a trained community volunteer who is appointed, along with a GAL attorney, by a district court judge to investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children. The advocate spends time getting to know the children and speaks for them in court. Any person can be a GAL advocate as long as they are older than 18 and have a strong desire to help children in need.
“That advocate becomes that child’s voice,” said GAL district administrator Jodi Livengood. “They’re able to voice their wishes, any desires they have, what their future goals are.
“That volunteer becomes the most consistent face for the entire team,” Livengood added.
The online application process includes a criminal background check, a screening interview and 30 hours of intensive, standardized training.
April is especially critical for the GAL program: It is both National Child Abuse Prevention Month and N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley proclaimed it to be North Carolina Guardian Ad Litem Child Advocate Month.
Stanly County Department of Social Services received a total of 899 reports of child abuse and neglect for Fiscal Year 2019, which involved 2,126 children, according to DSS director Dolly Clayton. Of these reports, 552 were accepted for either a family or investigative assessment.
So far in Fiscal Year 2020 (which began last July), the agency has received more than 700 reports, which have involved more than 1,500 children.
There are more than 50 GAL volunteers in the district, though only 13 active advocates in Stanly and a handful in Montgomery, Livengood said. People who live in Stanly can still advocate for children in Union or Montgomery counties and vice versa. The district currently serves 256 children, 42 of which are in Stanly.
GAL volunteers typically handle around 60 to 70 child abuse and neglect cases each month. There are roughly 10 to 15 cases heard in court in Stanly County per month, said GAL program supervisor Jon-Michael Haymond.
The GAL attorney-advocate for Stanly and Union is Vernon Cloud.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced GAL volunteers to change the way they interact with children.
“It’s requiring us to be very creative with how we’re advocating with children,” Haymond said.
Volunteers cannot see children in person right now. Most of the interactions have been through digital tools like Skype or FaceTime.
District and Superior Court in-person hearings have been suspended until June 1, Haymond said.
District 20 was forced to cancel its volunteer advocate appreciation event scheduled for April 23, though Haymond said he hopes to have an end-of-the-year celebration.
Livengood said an advocate becomes the voice of the child through testimony, their presence in court and their report.
“When you have those matched together, that’s a very powerful, powerful presence for advocacy,” she said.
For more information about the program, visit the website, volunteerforgal.org, or call Haymond at 704-993-7010.