I have always been one of those who would listen to the news and hear about abused children, abandoned children taken into DSS custody or children left alone to fend for themselves. I was the one who would get upset and say something needs to be done, why do people do this. I would sit and wonder what happens to these precious souls once they are taken from their homes for whatever reason. I was the one who would say somebody needs to do something; someone needs to step up and help these children. Basically it came down to; I didn’t know how to make a difference.
I had never heard of the Guardian Ad Litem program or also known as CASA in some areas. Guardian Ad Litem is someone who is selected by the court to look after the best interests of a minor, or debilitated adult. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. I started hearing this more and more on the news and heard it also on the Dr. Phil show referring to it as CASA. I did more research to learn more about this program.
A little history of the GAL/CASA program
The GAL/CASA program arrived on the scene in 1977. A study done in 1976 showed that over one million children were in foster care in the United States alone. Foster care was to be only a temporary placement, but because the court and the judges couldn’t get up to date and satisfactory information concerning a minor child, they couldn’t decide on the best placement for these children. A judge from Seattle Washington became concerned about this issue. Judge Soukup started to think of ways to make sure a dependent child had his or her best interested presented in court. He decided to bring together a group of volunteers and train them to serve the children in DSS custody for the time they were in foster care. The program was such a success that it began to spread all over the country. Currently there are over 900 plus programs known as CASA, GAL, Voices for children, and other names that are in place in all 50 states. Congress endorsed an act known as the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990. This Act states that a court appointed advocate shall be offered to every victim of child abuse or neglect in the USA.
My journey to become a Guardian Ad Litem
After hearing of the Guardian Ad Litem program on the news I decided to contact the local Guardian Ad Litem program to get more information. They sent me an application to fill out and mail back in. Upon receiving this information they called to set up an interview. After the interview and a background check I was allowed to sign up for the six week training class. The class was very informative and interactive. I had extra online work to do between classes. The online work wasn’t hard, and it was work at your own pace, but there was a cut off time to do the classes. You had to have it completed a day before the next class time. As stated above, it is a six week class and at the end of the class within 2 days I was sworn in, in court by a judge over the juvenile court system. After being sworn in, you will be presented with a case and can choose to accept it or asked to see another one. People have their preferences; some like to be assigned to case with young children and some like the teenagers and then others have no preference. I choose to take whatever cases presents themselves and at this time for me it has been in the younger group (under 12).
What a Guardian Ad Litem Does
The Guardian Ad Litem does many things:
- A Guardian first meets the child (always first) if the child is old enough you can explain who you are and what you do. Be upfront with them let them know you will represent them in court. Let them know you are there to let the judge know what they want and how they feel. You do have to let them know that even if they want something it is ultimately up to the judge to give them what they want and sometimes that doesn’t happen. That the judge may see things and understand things they don’t.
- The Guardian meets the parents either separately or together.
- Guardians meet the foster parents or others who are taking care of the children.
- Guardians visit the child’s school or daycare, meets the teachers and anyone else involved with the child. He/she keeps in touch with the teachers on a regular basis.
- The Guardian will review Dr. records, counselor/therapist records, and any other records concerning the child. They may at times meet with the above also. When you are sworn in you will be given your appointment papers. These papers are presented to anyone, to show you have a court order to review all and any records you so choose.
- The Guardian will attend meetings with DSS and any others involved with the child.
- The Guardian will prepare reports for the court. The reports usually have to be in at least 3 days before court day to be reviewed and delivered to all parties (lawyers and the judge). Court is usually every 3 to 6 months all depending on the type of hearing it is.
Many contacts can be done over the phone or in person. This all depends on if a Guardian is working full time, part time or no working. Most of the time a Guardian may spend from 2-4 hours a week or more depends on their schedule.
A Guardian Ad Litem is the one consistent person in the child’s life at this point. There will be many people in and out of the child’s life while their case is before the courts. There may be many different social workers, there maybe the intake social worker, the social worker assigned to their case. If the case becomes an adoption case and parental rights are severed, there will then be an adoption social worker assigned to them. There are also social workers over the foster home itself and this will gone on and on, so you can see how important your presents as a Guardian Ad Litem will be. The courts do like for you to stay with the child until they are reunited with their families, or final adoption into a new family take place.
Who can be a Guardian Ad Litem?
When the Guardian Ad Litem program first came into existence Guardians were lawyers, but seeing that lawyers didn’t have the time need to do the investigations and research need lay people were sought. These people make all kinds of people. Guardian Ad Litem can be a retired person, a college person, stay at home mom, a person out in the work force, anyone who can spare 2-4 hours or more a week. The Guardian Ad Litem MUST NOT HAVE A CRIMINAL BACKGROUND.
There is such a big need for a Guardian Ad Litem, more and more children are coming into DSS custody and into foster care. There is a need for men and women alike who want to make a difference in a child’s life. This has been the best volunteer job I have had so far. I really feel like I am in a small way making a difference. I am no longer on the side lines wishing I could do something or saying I wish someone would do something. As a Guardian Ad Litem you will get close to all you kids and there will be some who need a little extra attention. Some children may have a handicaps, a learning disability or something else than may need you to fight a little harder for them. Each child is different and unique in their own way, but ALL deserve to have a safe, loving home. They may go back to their families, but many can’t and it is up to you as the Guardian Ad Litem to be consistent and to help be a part of the whole group to find them a forever home, a home where they feel loved and protected.
*Please consider contacting you local Guardian Ad Litem/CASA program and see how you can get involved. So many children out there need you!