‘These children haven’t asked for me to come into their lives. But here I am.’

A court-appointed volunteer guardian ad litem describes a crash course in the judicial system and family law in a dynamic court system under the pressure of ever-changing social and economic situations

BRATTLEBORO — Three years ago, while I was sunk in post-election demoralization, my friend, lawyer Diane Shamas, described being a guardian ad litem, or GAL.

Listening, I realized that this challenging, essential work might actually give me heart.

Here were children in state custody because their parents were unable to provide safe homes, sometimes owing to opiate and other addictions, to homelessness, to poverty, to mental illness or domestic violence

A guardian ad litem is sometimes known as a CASA, a court-appointed special advocate for children. For a case to move forward, a GAL must be present in the courtroom to consider and weigh in on a child's best interests. In Vermont, they work pro bono, with gas mileage covered by the state.

When I learned that a training for new GALs was coming up, I went for an interview, completed an application, and passed a background check. I was ready!

But I wasn't prepared for the extensive presentations by legal experts in a crash course on family law, the CHINS (children in need of care or supervision) docket, and the world of DCF (Department of Children and Families), not to mention details of child development, cultural diversity and ethics.

I couldn't keep track of, let alone interpret, the swarm of acronyms. Fortunately, all the trainees felt similarly overwhelmed, our trainers remained endlessly patient, and the lunches were delicious.

* * *

In the weeks following the training, each new GAL went to observe court, while one of the coordinators acted as interpreter, whispering a commentary on the proceedings and identifying the players.

Court was a new world for me. Here, I saw parents having the worst day of their lives, on the verge of losing their children, confused about judicial details, suspicious, or hostile. Sometimes, I saw parents arriving from jail in chains and under guard.

As I soon discovered, even the most dysfunctional parent loves their children, and even grievously home-harmed children want desperately to go home. Under such harrowing circumstances, how could I determine a child's best interests?

Only through the work itself.

My first case was a newborn in hospital withdrawing from the heroin that had passed through the mother's placenta. This case still continues, and the child is now a healthy toddler in foster care, while the parents struggle to follow a case plan approved by the court.

Some cases are resolved within a few months. But if parental reunification fails, DCF begins to look for other potential permanent options. Throughout custody, a GAL follows the child.

GALs learn through on-the-job training. In all cases, I visit the child once a month, whether they live in foster care, at the home of a parent who has conditional custody, or at a residential placement. In court, I meet the lawyers for all parties, but I'm primarily involved with the lawyer for the child and with the DCF worker.

The learning curve has been steepest in court.

I take rapid notes and keep my eyes and ears open. I rein in my zealousness by remembering that I am not a witness or an investigator. I am not an advocate for the parents or the foster parents, although I might agree with them. My responsibility is solely for the child's best interest, as I perceive it.

This role has sometimes put me at odds with DCF or the child's lawyer or the state's attorney. Judges do ask GALs for their view of what is best for the child, and the answer can be as complicated as the strengths and weaknesses of the family.

* * *

Who becomes a GAL? All kinds of people who share a commitment to children and an ability to keep an open mind.

Previously, most of my volunteer work has been spent sitting at a board table. I wasn't anticipating how energized I'd feel by GAL work.

“But doesn't it depress you?” I'm asked.

Yes, it's demoralizing to see, up close, the way addiction and poverty hollow out families and endanger innocents. But those same innocents are children I am getting to know and respect for their resilience. Given a safe, loving home, they thrive.

Since this is a volunteer commitment, people want to know how much time I spend at it. It usually depends on how much time one wants to spend. Court dates and monthly child visits are basic. I travel to see children all over Windham County, and I follow them if they are placed in foster care farther away.

At GAL Brown Bag Lunches, I've listened to experts speak about the mental health and delinquency dockets, domestic violence, termination of parental rights, guidelines for child visits, and emotional support for secondary trauma, to mention a few topics.

I've attended bench/bar meetings where I've had a chance to talk to judges and lawyers. These non-obligatory events have opened new areas of knowledge.

I admire the expertise, stamina, and compassion of Vermont's social workers, judges, lawyers, and court personnel. I love being a part of what people often call a “broken” system, but I prefer the word “dynamic” to describe the pressure under which it is enduring the constantly changing social and economic conditions. Sometimes the court system falls short, but I would hate to imagine our state without it.

Most of all, I love forming connections to these children. I'm not their surrogate grandma. They haven't asked for me to come into their lives. But here I am, and I care about what happens to them.

In social service work, you hear a lot about burnout. A colleague of mine says that you know you're ready to retire if your work takes away more than it gives you. I've been a GAL for a bit less than three years, and I hope I never reach a time of diminishing returns.

So far, this work gives me energy and replenishes my faith in our benevolent society.

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