BY HERB BAILEY
I am a guardian ad litem, the courtroom voice for foster children, representing their wants, needs and best interests. There are more than 5,000 children in North Carolina who need a GAL, and about 1,300 of them don’t have one. Unfortunately, the program lacks an advertising budget: It relies on local resources and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. I’m sharing my story in hopes that you, too, will recognize this unique opportunity to change a child’s life while achieving something special in your own.
In 2012, my 83-year-old father was a “big brother” to a young boy in Wilmington via the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. Inspired, I called the Jackson County Department of Social Services to inquire about the local program and learned that there wasn’t one. Instead, the office personnel steered me to the GAL program, and Shannon Cowan, the supervisor, told me about volunteer opportunities.
At the time, I was a single man with two boys who were attending college. As Shannon explained the program to me, I felt compelled to help kids in my community. I’d been privileged to have a near-perfect, Norman Rockwell kind of upbringing, with a mom and dad to help me navigate life’s lessons. I reasoned that I had good parenting skills, a big heart and a desire to be more engaged in my community. How could I pass up such a wonderful opportunity to give a foster child a little support?
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!
Foster children are assigned a Department of Social Services social worker to address their basic wants and needs, but it’s the guardian ad litem volunteer who ensures that the child’s best interests are being met. That’s why GALs have so much latitude in contacting teachers, doctors, pastors, lawyers and so on to gather the appropriate facts and assist the child’s “family team” (social workers, teachers, guidance counselors, principals, psychologists, pastors and others who add value to a child’s growth and development). GALs seek accurate information, much as a parent would do for their own child. For example, we can access private information about the juvenile. We are the judge’s eyes and ears, focused on the well-being of one or more assigned children. While the DSS is concerned with the family dynamics, GALs consider what’s best for this individual child. And if this sounds daunting, rest assured that the program provides exceptional training that’s required before you can receive your first assignment.
My involvement with the Jackson County GAL program brought a special young man into my life. He was entering adolescence at the time; his mother had died before he entered grade school. His father, who’d died a couple of years earlier, had raised the boy and his older brother high upon a mountaintop. The many extended family members had refused to provide foster care, much less consider adoption. So he became a ward of the state and was assigned to the Jackson County DSS. Shannon Cowan had studied the case and matched me with this child. I’ll be forever grateful for her insight and support.
My GAL child had experienced tremendous trauma, and after his dad’s death, his older brother had abandoned him and moved across the country to start his own adult life. Over the next four years, the child was shuffled from one therapeutic foster-care placement to another, mostly outside Jackson County, due to the shortage of suitable options in the area (an unfortunate circumstance that the state really needs to address). As an adolescent, this boy was in desperate need of a loving environment and special training to address hygiene, education and basic life-coping skills.
Meeting those needs has been a team effort involving Joe Allen, a dedicated social worker; the terrific counselors via the boy’s current therapeutic foster placement; our awesome District Court judges; and attorneys Heather Baker and Mary Holliday. With their love and support, this child has not only overcome significant trauma but is now pursuing his heart’s creative desire: to be involved in community theater. Upon graduating from high school, he plans to pursue vocational training and explore college options. The world is now “his oyster.”
I, meanwhile, learned that you can make a difference in a child’s life!
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan wrote, “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Those words constantly remind me of my own responsibilities and opportunities.
And what about you: Are you “living today”?
Herb Bailey is a guardian ad litem in Jackson County.