06/12/06 — Adults needed to speak for children

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Adults needed to speak for children

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on June 12, 2006 1:48 PM

Wayne County officials are looking for volunteers to speak for some of the area's youngest victims of abuse and neglect.

The Guardian ad Litem program pairs volunteers with children who are victims, but too young to be able to voice their concerns or needs to a judge. It is a scenario that is played out often in Wayne County courts -- and around the country, officials say.

With increasing number of child abuse and neglect victims, more volunteers are needed, said Colleen Kosinski, guardian ad litem District 8 administrator.

Local volunteers act as advocates for the children in courtrooms in District 8, which includes Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties, Mrs. Kosinski said.

And the need is great, she added.

Mrs. Kosinski said cases of child abuse and neglect are rising dramatically everywhere. The program served 340 children last month alone, she said.

Just five years ago, the Guardian ad Litem program here was serving only 70 families a month. Now, that number is up to 200.

"Last year, the program statewide served almost 16,000 children who were abused and neglected so badly that their case had to go to court," Mrs. Kosinski said. "Each year in North Carolina, we lose an average of 31 children to homicide. But what people don't realize is that we lose far more to neglect -- kids who are left in hot cars, who are drowned, who don't get adequate medical attention. Those are not tracked and reported."

Guardian ad Litem serves children from birth through age 18. All of the work of the state-funded program is done by volunteers. Last year, District 8 had 125 volunteers. Mrs. Kosinski would like to have at least 150.

She explained that children come to the program when the Department of Social Services finds they are abused or neglected and files a petition that says the child needs protection.

A volunteer does an independent investigation to determine what's going on in that child's life and what resources might be available to help meet those needs. He writes a report that goes to the judge who hears the case.

Mrs. Kosinski said the program has served lots of children who were born with cocaine in their systems or whose parents were on drugs.

"One of the worst cases I've seen was a baby who was maybe 6 weeks old with more than 30 fractures," Mrs. Kosinski said. "Those kinds of things are the things that really break your heart."

Mrs. Kosinski said there have also been a lot of cases where children have been seriously abused.

"That seems to be on the uprise," she said. "Kids whose bones have been deliberately broken, shaken babies. We've had a lot of those lately, which is really heartbreaking."

But extreme abuse is not all she sees, she added.

"What's even worse though is kids living in just terrible neglectful situations," she said. "Kids who have no food. Kids who have no clothes. Kids who go to school and are ridiculed by their peers because they smell or they're dirty."

Mrs. Kosinski said the program has also seen a lot of children who are abandoned. They come into the system and the parents just disappear and no one knows where they are to even try and repair the family.

She said it "doesn't speak well for our society when people think that they can just abandon their children."

She said the guardian ad litem program needs volunteers who will see that these children have a voice in the court system. The program's goal is to find a safe and permanent home for a child, whether it be reuniting the family or taking the child out of an unsafe home.

"We do have some parents who have just made bad choices, but they're not bad people," Mrs. Kosinski said. "And then we have some cases where parents should never have had children. We always try first and foremost to reunify a child with his family if that is going to be a safe option for the child.

"There are so many other families out there that, unless someone takes an interest, aren't going to get the services they need."

For more information about the program or to become a volunteer, call 731-5659.