Palmetto Parent 2010 August issue : Page 17
children Voice of the For abused or neglected children, a guardian ad litem can be a lifeline. But 400 volunteers are needed statewide at her career as a facili-ties manager. She is now a grandmother, retired from her job but working as hard as ever for children with whom she shares only a season. Parker serves as a M volunteer guardian ad litem in Greenville County, advocating in the family court system for children who have been abused or neglected. She isn’t an attorney or a social worker; she is a well-trained volunteer who cares. Parker currently has four cases and has volunteered for almost two years. elanony Parker spent years car-ing for her own children and working hard Story by Chris Worthy Photos and photo illustration by Cindy Hosea August 2010 www.palmettoparent.com Palmetto Parent 17
Voice of the children
<font size=3>For abused or neglected children, a guardian ad litem can be a lifeline. But 400 volunteers are needed statewide</font><br /> <br /> <br /> Melanony Parker spent years caring for her own children and working hard at her career as a facilities manager. She is now a grandmother, retired from her job but working as hard as ever for children with whom she shares only a season. <br /> <br /> Parker serves as a volunteer guardian ad litem in Greenville County, advocating in the family court system for children who have been abused or neglected. She isn’t an attorney or a social worker; she is a well-trained volunteer who cares. Parker currently has four cases and has volunteered for almost two years.<br /> <br /> As of July 1, all Guardians ad Litem are volunteers. In the past, South Carolina attorneys have been appointed to serve, but that will no longer be the case.<br /> <br /> “We’re excited because we think it’s the best thing for children, but it’s also a challenge,” said Cherie Walker, public relations supervisor for the South Carolina Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program.<br /> <br /> More volunteers are needed so that every child has an advocate. Parker said more than 80 volunteers are needed in Greenville County alone.<br /> <br /> Lauri Hammond answered the call to help in Lexington County. Hammond also works in public relations and training for the Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program for the 1st, 2nd and 11th judicial circuits. Though Hammond is a former foster parent and was also employed by the Department of Social Services, she said her background only made her aware of the need but it is not a prerequisite for someone to be an effective volunteer. <br /> <br /> She was recently assigned her first case.<br /> <br /> “I know the perspective of someone who says, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Hammond said. “I’m a little nervous, but there is a lot of support.”<br /> <br /> Indeed, extensive training and support are the hallmarks of the program. Volunteers must be 21 years of age or older and pass a criminal background check. Then, 30 hours of training are provided and ongoing support is available for as long as they serve as volunteers, something Parker said makes volunteers exceptional advocates in the courtroom.<br /> <br /> “The training is the big difference,” Parker said. “We’re volunteers. We are doing this because it’s what we are choosing to do.”<br /> <br /> Volunteers meet regularly with children and attend hearings on their behalf.<br /> <br /> “The guardian is the advocate for the child in the family court process,” Walker said. “Our main focus is to get to know the child and be sure the child has a voice in the process.”<br /> <br /> Walker said the children need a stable force during a time of upheaval.<br /> <br /> “DSS has become involved in their lives for some reason or they are in foster care,” Walker said. <br /> <br /> Once a guardian ad litem is assigned, the commitment is generally at least six months, with the average time around 18 months, Walker said. <br /> <br /> “When a child goes into foster care, that means a change in their school, their family and their friends,” Walker said. “By the end, the guardian ad litem is usually the only person who has been there the whole time. Our goal is the best interest of the child — a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.”<br /> <br /> Hammond said the guardian ad litem becomes a constant for the child.<br /> <br /> “Kids move from foster home to foster home sometimes,” Hammond said. “The guardian ad litem’s commitment is one to two years. This is truly advocating for a permanent home.”<br /> <br /> Volunteers meeting the qualifications do not need any background in child services or the court system. The program provides resources to be successful advocates for children — they need only bring a heart for children and a willingness to commit their time and energy to being the voice of a child, Walker said.<br /> <br /> “They have a great support system in place — staff and attorneys,” she said. “They don’t just walk into a courtroom alone.”<br /> <br /> Service takes about four to six hours per month, according to Walker. Much of that time is spent with the children.<br /> <br /> “They so look forward to seeing you when you come to visit,” she said. “They just run up to hug you and you become someone they can really trust.”<br /> <br /> Hammond said the time and effort are well worth it.<br /> <br /> “If I can do it, they can do it,” she said of potential volunteers. “I’ve worked in children’s services for years but the idea of going to court can be intimidating because it is so important. You are well trained. You are speaking the child’s voice. It isn’t for everyone. It needs to be a good fit, but you are not left alone out there.”<br /> <br /> According to Walker, approximately 400 volunteers are still needed statewide. She said each one could mean everything to a child in a situation beyond their control.<br /> <br /> “It’s always up to the volunteer to accept any case,” she said. “It’s up to them what caseload they take. If they just take one case, it would help so much.”<br /> <br /> Parker said she was familiar with the program, but became convinced she should volunteer after reading about it in her church bulletin and then hearing about it repeatedly. She felt it was a divine calling.<br /> <br /> “By that point, yes, God, I got it,” she said. “I was praying. I wanted something where I could give back. I found my passion and my purpose in doing this work. Regretfully, the number of abused children keeps growing. If we’re ever to break the cycle of abuse, we have to work on these children. If we don’t get involved, these children will do what they know. If the guardian doesn’t speak up for the child, that child doesn’t have a voice in court.”<br /> <br /> Hammond said facing the reality of abuse and neglect is difficult, but the rewards of volunteering are beyond measure.<br /> <br /> “You feel good knowing the kids are doing well,” she said. “I know they are doing well and that is rewarding. If they’re not seen or heard, it’s easy to look the other way. If you look in their eyes — oh my gosh. We’re a community. There are a lot of good, good folks here. They just need to know about us. I just hope that as a community, we help all our children. It’s less painful if you just look the other way and don’t know.”<br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <b><font size=3>Want to know more?</b></font><br /> To learn more about South Carolina’s Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program or to become a volunteer, visit scgal.org or call 1-800-277-0113.