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Court seeks advocates for local kids

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Posted on September 17, 2009 |
By John Flowers



ADDISON COUNTY — Wanted: Addison County residents willing to give a voice to abused, neglected or troubled children who cannot speak for themselves in the local court system.

Qualifications: An open heart, objective mind and a willingness to inject oneself into some at-times very emotional and challenging domestic situations.

Compensation: None, save for mileage, phone calls and the priceless feeling of knowing you’ve helped some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens.

The aforementioned job description pretty much summarizes the court system’s current quest for more guardians ad litem, or GALs, who are charged with advocating on behalf of the best interests of children alleged to have been abused, neglected, or are beyond the control of their parents, or who may be involved in divorce proceedings. The guardians’ duties include making sure affected children and their families receive appropriate services in a timely manner; that their case plans and court decisions are based on the child’s best interests; and that every child has a safe, stable, and permanent home within a reasonable period of time.

The GALs also may advocate on behalf of the best interests of youths accused of committing delinquent or criminal acts.

It’s a very important volunteer job, and there is a shortage of GALs in Addison County.

Nathalie Lindgren is GAL coordinator in Rutland County and a current recruiter of guardians in Addison County. She said there are only around four active GALs in Addison County handling a combined total of approximately 50 cases. The GALs can spend an average of around 10 hours per month on each case they are assigned, and are told to expect that they’ll have to monitor each case for around two years, according to Lindgren.

There are currently around 250 GALs statewide who are helping to manage cases for a total of 750-800 children who for one reason or another can’t live at home. Some are abused, neglected, unmanageable or involved in a divorce case, according to Mary Hayden, coordinator of the statewide GAL program.

Addison County is one of the areas of the state where there is an acute need for more guardians.

“Ideally, we would like to have another five (guardians),” Lindgren said of the Addison County court system’s needs.

Adding to the need in Addison County is that a few of the court system’s most seasoned GALs have recently retired. Thankfully, a few new volunteers have recently stepped forward. Among them are Bruce and Sue Byers of Cornwall. Bruce Byers has completed the three-session, 32-hour orientation program that GALs must submit to (along with background checks); Sue Byers has one session left.

Vermont’s GAL criteria shouldn’t present much of a learning curve for the Byers’, as each had been involved with similar legal work in their former home state of New Jersey. Sue Byers was a board member for 21 years of a nonprofit board that helped make decisions for children under state supervision.

These are skills that the Byers believed would come in handy when they heard of the GAL shortage in Addison County.

“We knew there was a need,” Sue Byers said.

She’s pleased that Addison County’s size and population are such that she and her husband will get to know the clients, case workers, court officials and other players who routinely interact with GALs.

Tom Moser, also of Cornwall, has been serving as a GAL for more than 10 years. He and his wife had been looking to do some volunteer work when they retired to the area 18 years ago. Moser had been involved in the foreign service during his professional life, but had always had an interest in social work. The GAL program offered him an entrée into the field as a volunteer.

Moser has juggled as many as 20 to 25 cases at a time, a testament to his abilities as a guardian. He takes each case very seriously, meeting with the child, his or her family, attorneys and court officials to work out a plan that will protect the youth’s best interests.

Some of Moser’s cases have been resolved quite quickly; others have lasted for five or more years.

“(The cases) vary tremendously,” Moser said.

He stressed one doesn’t have to have a legal background in order to be a successful GAL.

“My strength, I think, is getting a feel for what is going on in the family dynamic,” Moser said.

There are many times when GALs and the court system produce a positive outcome for the child and family. Then there are other times, Moser said, “when there are no happy solutions.” These sometimes involve instances when a child unfortunately cannot be returned to his or her home.

The most gratifying aspects of being a GAL, according to Moser, are those cases in which you see “a kid that came out of a bad environment and they were able to rise above it.”

Moser is 82 and still relishes his work as a GAL. There are some limits on the number of hearings he can attend, but he gets new cases all the time.

“I rarely have said ‘no,’” he said.

Anyone interested in applying to serve as a GAL should contact Lindgren at (802) 786-3887; go online to www.vermontjudiciary.org to find an application; or call the GAL office in Montpelier at (802) 828-6551.

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