Voices for victims
By John Joyce
Published in News on August 15, 2014 1:46 PM
Guardian ad Litem program supervisors Cynthia Coley, left, and Sebastian Ratliff work with program volunteer Stacie Parrish.
Some are abused; others are neglected.
In extreme cases, the child has been sexually assaulted.
By the time Colleen Kosinski and the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts Guardian ad Litem program are contacted, a child might have endured any number of traumas.
The immediate goal is to get the child out of danger. The long-term goal is to connect the child with a "forever family," Mrs. Kosinski said.
Mrs. Kosinski is the district administrator for the Guardian ad Litem program covering Judicial Districts 8 and 3A, which include Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties.
The program connects volunteers with children in need who speak for them in the court system when they cannot speak for themselves.
Sadly, due to an increase in the number of cases involving children, the need for volunteers is at an all-time high, she said.
A Guardian ad Litem is a trained and sworn volunteer who serves as an advocate for a child going through the N.C. Court system due to cases of neglect, abuse or dependency -- dependency in these cases meaning a child without parents.
More than 5,000 children were served statewide in 2013.
This year, more than 1,700 children do not have an advocate.
"The program is short across the state," Mrs. Kosinski said.
A class of nine new volunteers just graduated in her district. Three are from Wayne County.
"The largest group we have had was 15, but we can do 20 or more," she said.
So far the class has 16 recruits.
Neighboring Sampson County has the greatest deficiency, with 40 kids in need who do not have an advocate.
Since the ad Litem training curriculum is mandated by the state, those trained here in Wayne County can volunteer anywhere, Mrs. Kosinski said.
She said N.C.'s training program, approved by the National Court Appointed Special Advocates, is so well-constructed, it has been adopted nationally.
"It begins with an application, available online at ncgal.org, where there is also a job description," she said.
Applicants are then scheduled to meet with Guardians ad Litem and are interviewed. There is a criminal background check and references are contacted.
"We want to make sure we are not letting just anybody near our children," Mrs. Kosinski said.
The actual training consists of a 30-hour curriculum done partly at home and partly in three, four-hour classroom sessions.
Volunteers then go to court to observe proceedings and to learn procedure.
Once training is complete, volunteers are sworn in as advocates and are immediately assigned a case.
The whole process on average takes about two months.
"Unless the volunteer has lived out of state within the last five years. Then we have to conduct a national criminal background check and that can take up to six to eight weeks," Mrs. Kosinski said.
When an advocate is assigned a case, he or she meets with and evaluates the child's needs. He or she might talk to teachers and family members to truly gauge what is going on in the child's life.
"The advocate then makes recommendations to the court with what is called a court report," Mrs. Kosinski said.
She said the judge evaluates the report and then imposes orders instructing what each person will provide.
"There may be a mental health assessment, play therapy, substance abuse treatment for the parent ... the advocate follows up to ensure these things are being done and that the child is safe and protected," Mrs. Kosinski said.
Permanency is achieved when the court orders are followed or, if not, the child is placed with a relative or an adoptive family -- what Mrs. Kosinski calls a forever family.
"That's the real goal is to place these children somewhere they are going to be protected and cared for forever," she said.
To keep up with demand, the advocate is then immediately assigned the next case.
Volunteers have to have the maturity to take complex information in, synthesize it and create the reports for the judge, Mrs. Kosinski said.
"They need to be able to work with other people -- the parents, the lawyers, the judge," she said.
Volunteers range in age from college students to retirees, many of them military, who want to do something fulfilling with their time.
"As long as (the volunteer) has a real desire to work with children, I can teach the rest," Mrs. Kosinski said.
Burnout is possible considering the sometimes extreme conditions to which these children are subjected, but it is rare, she said.
Some volunteers have been with the program since its inception in 1981.
"It really becomes a passion when you see the recommendations you make are being taken and the child is being protected," Mrs. Kosinski said.
For more information on the program, call the Wayne County Guardian ad Litem office at 919-722-6300.