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POSTED APRIL 19, 2007 Print Friendly

Guardian ad Litem Volunteers -
A Voice For The Children

In the past fiscal year, 4,237 Guardian ad Litem volunteers saved the state of North Carolina over $14.68 million through 813,504-plus hours of service, according to NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker in a letter addressed to current program volunteers. On Tuesday, approximately 70 of those volunteers representing three area judicial districts were honored at Outback Steakhouse of Blowing Rock, marking the eighth year the establishment has hosted the annual appreciation luncheon. The gathering was coordinated by John Lewis, 24th judicial district administrator of the Guardian ad Litem Program, who serves a five-county region from his Burnsville office.

Esther Manogin, Richard Hearn, Mary Farthing and Howard Davenport were just a few of The High Country’s Guardian ad Litem volunteers honored during Tuesday’s luncheon at Outback of Blowing Rock. Photo by Sherrie Norris
The High Country is fortunate to have an impressive number of adults who are trained and appointed by a district court judge to serve as “a voice to the children,” given court authority to investigate and determine the needs of abused and neglected children petitioned into the court system by the Department of Social Services. The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) volunteer, as described by Jan Boren, who has learned a lot about the program in her few short months of involvement, “is an investigative arm as well as the eyes and ears of the judge.” The GAL volunteer makes independent recommendations to the court about services which focus on the needs of each child, advocating in the best interest of the child for a permanent and safe home. While it is the goal of the program to see a successful resolution to each case in the shortest time- frame possible, some volunteers like Alex Popper have been involved with the same children for ten years or more, and sometimes two or three times over. Having given of his services for “almost 15 years,” Popper told us that the role of a GAL volunteer is “often challenging,” but adds, “When a case comes to a successful ending, it’s always worthwhile.” Popper’s involvement was triggered by a “television crawl” that, after “five or six times scrolling across the bottom of the screen,” initiated his response “do something about it.” His reply to the advertisement turned into an interesting venture for the retired chemical sales rep who moved to the mountains from Charlotte in 1995. While he admits that “most cases” last only a year or two, he has dealt with at least two lengthy exceptions of a decade or longer. “I’ve practically been able to watch these kids grow up.” While he has seen tragic outcomes along the way, most turn our positively, he states, “And that makes me feel good.”

Retired school psychologist Ellen LaMartina, who moved to Boone from Florida, has been a GAL volunteer for nearly five years. “I always knew I would do this when I retired. I love doing it – and it makes me feel like I’m doing something useful.” LaMartina has been involved in five cases, with some lasting longer than expected, but thrilled that they have “worked out so well.”

Howard Davenport was a GAL volunteer in McDowell County for four years before relocating to Boone. At last year’s luncheon, he was presented a 20-year certificate of appreciation and continues to hold the record for the area’s longest serving GAL, estimating having served over 100 children during that time. “Some came back,” he adds, as he estimates assisting in “25-30 cases.”

Jan Boren has already been involved with three cases in her eight months as GAL, “one of which is closed and two still active.” While she serves in Avery County, where sources tell us exists a great need, her husband Doyle, volunteers in Watauga. Both Jan and Doyle retired from “the space industry,” before moving from Florida. Jan became captivated by the GAL program there, which her friend directed, and saw that it was an opportunity to “really touch the kids.” She adds, “I have to remind myself that it’s not a perfect world, but maybe I can do something to make a difference.”

Mary Farthing, Richard Hearn, Esther Manogin were just a few more familiar High Country volunteers honored on Tuesday, joined by others from neighboring judicial districts, including a three-generation team of daughter, mother and grandmother from Caldwell County, who makes serving children a family affair.

The “main qualification” to becoming a GAL is “a sincere concern for the well-being of children.” The volunteer must be “a mature adult of sound character with good verbal and written communication skills and must be able to interact and talk with people of various educational and ethnic backgrounds.” An “essential characteristic” is the ability to be objective and nonjudgmental.

The duties of the GAL volunteer include:
· Visits to the child
· Ensures that the child’s wishes are known to the court
· Interviews the parents, guardians or caretakers
· Interviews the social workers and other service providers and reviews records related to the family
· Gathers and assesses independent information about the child sufficient to recommend a resolution that’s in the child’s best interests
· Seeps cooperative solutions with other participants in the child’s case
· Prepares written reports for court hearings
· Attends and participates in court hearings and other related meetings
· Testifies, if needed, to inform the court of changes in the child’s situation
· Keeps all records and information confidential
· Monitors provisions of service plans and court orders
· Explains the role of the GAL to every child who is old enough to understand
· Keeps the child informed of all aspects of the court proceedings
· Consults with local program staff for support and guidance

The process of becoming a GAL volunteer requires a written application, three personal/professional references and a criminal record check. A personal interview will be conducted by a staff member. Completion of 20-30 hours of training by the local district staff is required which will include court observation. When fully trained, the volunteer will be sworn in by a district court judge before being assigned a case, which will conclude only when permanency is achieved or formally relived by the court.

Anyone interested in joining this dedicated team of volunteers should contact John Lewis at (828) 682-4754 or email at

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