Between 140-150 Wilkes County children are involved with the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program in the 23rd judicial district which includes Wilkes, Ashe and Yadkin counties.
A total of 275 children in the 23rd judicial district are typically served by the GAL program yearly, said officials.
A GAL is a trained community member appointed by a district court judge to investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children and youth. The department of social services has petitioned the children and youth into the court system.
The GAL is paired with an attorney advocate to represent the child’s best interest in court, said Tamara Lakey, with the GAL program in Wilkes.
For the fourth consecutive year, Gov. Beverly Perdue has proclaimed April as North Carolina Guardian ad Litem Month. The proclamation recognizes the program for its “distinguished record of public service through its work to enhance the quality of life for children.”
Being a GAL is very rewarding, said Minnie Milsaps and Wayne McNeil. The two have worked with the program for over three years.
Mrs. Milsaps is retired after 28 years with the real estate department at Lowe’s Company’s and McNeil is a retired landscaper. He was also a foster parent for 13 years, along with his wife, Ira McNeil.
They both agree the GAL program has given them the opportunity to work with children and help them.
“It is good to see children go to a place where they will be safe and happy,” said Mrs. Milsaps.
The GAL program was started in 1983 by the N.C. General Assembly. The GAL’s role includes helping to move children out of the court system in a timely manner and into a safe permanent home. Their job is to fulfill state and federal mandates to protect and promote the best interests of juveniles and children in abuse and neglect court proceedings.
“Part of our job is to provide a voice for abused and neglected children,” said McNeil.
“We work to determine the wishes or expressed preferences of the child and report them to the court.”
As part of that job, GAL’s conduct independent investigations to determine the facts, needs of the children and appropriate resources, said Tracie Jordan, GAL district administrator.
“Our GAL’S have a gentle, caring spirit,” said Mrs. Jordan.
Often a placement with relatives is requested, as opposed to foster parents. “This means they can have some contact with their parents,” said Mrs. Jordan.
GAL’s are trained by program staff in each county of the state. The 25-30 hour training is held by staff and continuing education classes are ongoing. GAL’s must also complete a criminal record check and a screening interview with program staff.
Then they are matched with a child who looks like they will work well with the GAL, said Mrs. Lakey.
The GAL is encouraged to commit to at least four hours per month on a case and to serve until the case is completed, which usually takes a year.
One of the four district court judges in the 23rd judicial district appoints the GAL advocate and an attorney advocate.
A no conflict policy is enforced, said Mrs. Lakey and Mrs. Jordan. “We make sure the GAL’s don’t know the child or juvenile they will be working with.”
“No prior personal involvement with a child is allowed,” said Mrs. Milsaps. “One of our goals is to be objective.”
Statewide in 2010-11, there were 5,145 volunteers who provided 987,840 hours of service. GAL’s were involved in 54,398 child abuse and neglect hearings and 15,291 abused and neglected children received legal representation.
The GAL program is part of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
The Guardian ad Litem Program is offering a new Guardian ad Litem Advocate training at 9 a.m. Thursday, April 19 at the Wilkes County Courthouse, located at 500 Courthouse Drive, Wilkesboro. For more information call Mrs. Jordan at 651-4421. More information about the Guardian ad Litem Program can be found at www.ncgal.org or call 1-800-982-4041.