The other day I was on the radio (94.5) talking to Deb Sofield on The Morning Answer about foster care (Thanks, Deb!). One caller (or texter) commented about how sometimes DSS is wrong–they remove children from homes and put them into places where they’re worse off. In my time as a Guardian ad Litem, I never had a case where removal wasn’t warranted, where the standard for probable cause wasn’t met and upheld by a judge. However, I have had a case where the DSS social worker and the state’s attorney and I disagreed. In that case, they were fully prepared to argue to the judge that both parents should be denied visitation (even supervised visitation) while they worked towards termination of parental rights. I had spent a lot of time with the kids, their parents, school teachers, extended family, etc. Based on all that time and investigation, I felt that the mother should be offered a treatment plan that included separation from the father. He was the abusive one. If she were willing (unlike Ann’s mother, who I told you about the other day) to leave the abuser and take parenting classes, enter therapy, etc., I thought she could get to a place where reunification was possible. The DSS worker and attorney disagreed. They did not believe the mother would separate from the abuser (a position I totally understand; see: Ann). They thought mom would lie and let the abuser have access to the children despite the court order. They thought she wasn’t strong enough. I thought mom was willing to do whatever it took to bring her kids home. I thought that, with the right resources and support, she’d leave him behind and forge a better, brighter future for herself and her children. And as I mentioned on the radio, I come from an unstable background myself. I’m no idealist. I know first-hand parents will choose something (husbands, boyfriend’s, booze, drugs, whatever) over their own children. Been there. But I think that made me an even better advocate in this case. I digress…
If you’ve never been to family court, it’s much like any other court…or politics…in that much of the work and negotiations take place outside the courtroom (or voting chambers). And so we met together in a small huddle in a room outside family court to hash that out. Me, Dad, Mom, Social Worker, DSS attorney. There was yelling and finger pointing and all kinds of tears. Listen, I don’t care what the circumstances are, the tears and pleas of a mother faced with losing her children will break your heart. Every time.
The job of the Guardian ad Litem is important for this reason. The GAL, as I explained on the radio, is the voice of the child. Not another voice for DSS or the state. In training, that’s made clear again and again. The other thing that’s clear, not just from training, but from my interactions with family court judges: they give great weight to the report and testimony of the GAL. I will never forget this particular case because after that little meeting in the room, we were called into the courtroom, and the judge (with whom I’d had cases before) said, I read the reports and see that you disagreed as to the viability of a treatment plan. Did you have a chance to reconcile those differences? I honestly wasn’t sure. But the DSS attorney begrudgingly agreed to a treatment plan for mom that included no contact with dad. Dad was denied visitation of any kind. I accepted that. So did the judge. The attorney looked at me as we left, and said “This is on you. I hope you plan on checking up on them.” I did plan on it. And I did. In fact, I scheduled random, unplanned visits on a regular basis to see if I could catch mom letting dad visit despite the court order. I talked to neighbors to see if they saw any sign of him there. The kids and I regularly got together to talk about what was going on. I checked to see that a physician regularly checked them for any signs of abuse. I followed up to ensure mom and kids were in therapy and attended regularly. I made sure extended family were involved in the kids’ day-to-day lives. I was clear: if she lets him have contact with the kids, all bets are off. Why? Because those children and their health and well-being mattered. But part of what was best for them and their health and well-being was being with their mother…as long as she could provide the safe and stable home they needed.
So, yes, sometimes DSS gets it wrong. And that’s why the Guardian ad Litem is so important. The state gets DSS. Parents get themselves and sometimes an attorney if they choose and can afford it. Children get a Guardian ad Litem. Well, some do anyway. See, the thing is, GAL is a volunteer position. And there are almost never enough volunteers. Every child should have a GAL. Period. But that means more people need to step up. As I mentioned on the radio, the time commitment is up to you. Some people take one case at a time. Some cases are very short term. Some are long term. Some people take 2-3 cases at a time. Some more. The thing is that it’s volunteer work. It’s some of the most rewarding volunteer work there is. You can make a big difference in the lives of children who really need it. So think about it: maybe you can’t foster, but maybe you could be a Guardian ad Litem. And if not that, I know there’s something you could give. Foster children are OuR children. Ask yourself: how can you use your time, talent, and resources to support our most vulnerable children and make their lives and our community better and stronger?