07/28/08 — Speaking for the children

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Speaking for the children

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 28, 2008 1:43 PM

The children aren't their own, but that doesn't matter to Wayne County's Guardian ad Litem volunteers.

It's their job to step into hard situations and lend their voices to the hundreds of children run through the court system and the county Department of Social Services each year, often because of cases of abuse or neglect.

News-Argus/Greg Sousa

Guardian ad Litem volunteer recruiter Ronnie Brantley, center, discusses a case with volunteers Nancy Truhan, left, and Mickael Stephens in her office at the Wayne County Courthouse in Goldsboro.

"When DSS sees they have a case that needs a little more attention, they'll refer them to us, and we are their (the children's) voice," Guardian volunteer coordinator Ronnie Brantley said. "We work in tandem with DSS. We don't have to agree with everything they say and they don't agree with everything we say, but the judge listens to us and reads everything we say. Everything we do is in the best interests of the children."

The key, she explained, is that they can "do things DSS can't."

"They (the parents and others involved) respect us because they know we're doing this out of our hearts and not because we have to."

It's a more informal relationship that can make all the difference.

"A lot of time parents will look at us a little differently and open up more to us because everything we do is confidential," she continued. "We then can provide the parents with different resources. But we cannot force them. They make their own choices and they deserve our respect."

A national effort introduced in North Carolina in 1983, the goal of the Guardian ad Litem program is to help children who find themselves the subjects of court cases by advocating for them and making sure they remain safe and end up in a permanent home -- even if that means a home away from their parents.

And, Ms. Brantley acknowledged, sometimes that can be tough.

She explained that volunteers have to find a balance between the anger they may feel over parents' actions and the understanding they must have in order to work with them to make life better for the child.

"You have to keep from judging them," she said. "You have to understand them and make things better. If you can't be non-judgmental, you're not doing your job.

"We have to look at the why. We know it's not the child's fault, but we also have to understand the parents and how to help them."

But finding people with those skill sets isn't always easy.

Volunteers, she explained, are constantly in short

Currently in Wayne County there are 68 volunteers for 144 children (78 families).

Becoming a volunteer guardian, even though it's not a large time commitment, does take more than just walking into the program's third-floor office in the Wayne County Courthouse. There is a formal training process that each applicant must complete.

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and have either lived in North Carolina for five years or be willing to submit to a fingerprint check so their criminal backgrounds can be run.

Then applicants are required to go through a sit-down interview with Ms. Brantley.

She asks them why they're interested in the program, to describe themselves, to explain what experience they have with other races, how they manage their time, what sort of special skills they have, what they hope to gain from the experience and even what their childhoods were like.

"We want to know where you're coming from," Ms. Brantley said. "If you have issues you haven't handled, you have to have those under control. You have to be non-judgmental."

But even all those characteristics aren't enough.

Applicants must also
complete an in-depth manual, a study of the applicable laws and a certain amount of time spent watching court

It isn't a hard process, she said, but it's one that leads to committed volunteers.

"You have to have volunteers step up to the plate," she said. "I would like to think that if for some reason I wasn't doing my job as a parent, somebody would be willing to step up and help take care of my children.

"But this isn't for everybody. It really depends on your stamina and your personal drive."

It also means that you have "No. 1, a desire to help children and families, No. 2, a willingness to go through some training, and No. 3, the ability to go about doing it with perseverance," five-year volunteer Mickael Stephens said.

Stephens, the pastor at Christ Life Missionary Baptist Church in Goldsboro, explained that he got involved with the organization after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper.

Never, he said, was there any nervousness or hesitation about his decision to

"It's straightforward," he said. "Once you complete the training, the staff is willing to help you, and there's a lot of excitement when you get your first case and when you really get the opportunity to help a family in need."

He explained that once a case is assigned, the first step for volunteers is to read the DSS reports, talk to doctors, teachers and even neighbors -- anybody who might be able to offer insight into the

They also talk to the child, the parents and other siblings and family members -- all in an attempt to understand what's going on inside the home and what resources, including support groups, parenting classes, anger management classes and therapy might be able to help.

"It takes a lot of people, but if you search hard enough you can almost always find something," first-year volunteer Nancy Truhan said.

The hardest cases, though, Stephens admitted, are those involving abuse.

"You start with the premise that most people who have children want to be loving and caring parents, but that something along the way has prohibited them from being loving and caring parents and they're acting in an inappropriate way," Stephens said. "You just have to understand that you have to make today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. You have to look at what you can do to improve the situation, rather than harbor on the situation.

"That's where your faith comes in, if you're a person of faith. You pray and try to set an example for what being a parent is so they can see that change is possible."

Because, Ms. Truhan added, the volunteers' focus has to always be on what's best for the child and making sure those needs are being met.

"You have to realize that most people make mistakes but that given the right opportunities and resources, hopefully they can recover from that," she said. "Hopefully the family realizes how important it is to do what's best for the child -- even if it's not how you would do it."

Unfortunately, Stephens acknowledged, not every successful case means the child ends up back at home -- sometimes they end up in foster homes, with other relatives or adoptive homes.

"You do sometimes have people who don't believe they've done anything wrong and you've got parents who say they want to cooperate, but in the end, don't," he said. "And there is a sadness when you see a family broken up, but some people just don't want to be parents.

"The ultimate goal, though, is find a permanent home for the children."

And when that happens and a child's life is improved, for Ms. Truhan, that makes it worth all the effort.

"I've always been interested in helping children, and these children in the system especially need somebody speaking for them," she said. "Even though I've only been doing it a short matter of time, it's been a very positive experience, and one I'd recommend to anybody who has the time and wants to make a difference. I think it's important for people to help others in their community, especially children, thrive and learn."

For more information call 731-5659.