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    It is unfortunate that we live in a world where the same children who bring light and joy into our lives with their optimistic outlooks and wonder are too often put in a position of either neglect or abuse. Last year in the state of North Carolina alone, 4,618 trained volunteers served 17,701 children who were under petition stating abuse or neglect. These numbers have risen since the previous year, and the numbers do not represent all those who were served. More than 38,000 hearings were scheduled for children. This is an alarming number, and through a court appointed program entitled Guardian ad Litem, or GAL for short, you can help place a child in a permanently safe home.
    The qualifications for Volunteers GALs, as they are called, are simple enough. You must be a responsible and mature adult. You must have a sincere concern for the well-being of children, and a continuing commitment to advocate for a child until a safe and permanent home is obtained. Volunteers should also have sound character, and hold good communication skills. A Volunteer GAL should be nonjudgmental and be able to interact with people of various socioeconomic, ethnic and educational backgrounds.
    {mosimage} As this is a sensitive subject matter, and a court-affiliated program, the volunteer must go through a rather extensive application process before approval as a Volunteer GAL. There is a written application, three personal/professional references are required, and a criminal record check is performed. The process is almost like applying for a job and really, what more important job could there be than placing a child in a safe home? After approval, the volunteer will complete 30 hours of training with GAL staff and finally, commit to working four hours per month on appointed cases. Most volunteers work an average of 15 hours per month on cases, and have full-time jobs as well. The commitment is easy to fill in the evenings, on the weekends or on the phone during the day.
    The GALs visit their assigned children and keep them informed of the court hearings, communicating with the attorney advocate, interviewing the parents, guardians, caretakers, social workers and reading records related to the family. All of this background research allows them to come to an informed decision regarding what is in the best interest of the child. The Volunteer GAL will also be certain the court is aware of the child’s wishes, while also monitoring the court-ordered services for the child. Developing a personal relationship with the child is not recommended. While one may want to take the child to a baseball game or a museum, the courts frown on these activities, as they can be considered a gift to the child and sway the child’s mind regarding decisions about their future.
    The program is in its 25th year in North Carolina, and continues to be an amazing way to serve children. GAL volunteers gave the state 886,656 hours of service in training and casework. This work would have amounted to more than $16.6 million dollars, all done for free to service children in need.
    “It is worth every minute of my time to be a part of the system to find safe, permanent homes for the children I serve. My background is in mortgage banking and I have no experience with the court system or children of my own,” explained Judy Johnson of Brunswick County. “I became a Guardian ad Litem Volunteer at the urging of a friend. I’ve always loved children and I’ve always known I have a mother’s heart.”
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