Looking Out for the Children

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Child Welfare
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The state of North Carolina has had its fair share of problems the last few years when it comes to child welfare, social services and other areas pertaining to the overall safety of children in the home.  The Zahra Baker and Shaniya Davis cases brought national attention to a system that managed to fail children on a spectacular level and in the wake of their deaths highlighted a system that has its trusted agents overworked and unable to carry their caseload as well as a bureaucracy that is more concerned with covering it’s own ass than it is doing the right thing and aiding in the investigative process.  Here in NC we have such fancy titled agencies as the Department of Social Services and Child Protective Services; CPS falls under the authority of DSS who has a director for each of its 100 different county offices.

NC is no different than any other state in the country.  The high turnover rate of social workers is only eclipsed by the number of people who wish to become one.  While there are federal ethics and standards that should be met, each state is essentially responsible for the “policing” of it social work system and just like any system in this country the potential for both abuse of the system and general ineffectiveness is quite common.  Zahra Baker and Shaiya Davis are just two examples, the worst of all possible examples, of how the system can and does fail.  They are also examples of why there is such a high-turnover in the career field.  It takes a certain kind of person to dedicate themselves to social service, particularly with the types and number of cases social workers can field.  The majority of these dedicated individuals are well-educated, manage the required continuing education, caring, compassionate people, many of whom have had their own experiences within the system at some point in their lives.  They bring a unique level of experience to the system, the system however seems to keep burning these folks out and tossing them to the wolves, over and over again.

One thing NC does very, very well in cases where a judge deems fit is they assign an advocate specifically for the juvenile involved in the case whose only concern is for the well-being of the child or children.  You see the roles of the other players are a bit different, DSS or CPS has the goal of resolving issues with the family, with the intended goal to be resolution and/or reunification of a happy, healthy family.  The criminal justice side of things is generally speaking seeking out some sort of punitive and possibly rehabilitative measure.  One way or the other from the CJ side there is some sort of desired outcome demonstrating justice has been served.

The third player in this little dance of familial dynamics is a group of volunteer community members appointed by a District Court judge known as a Guardian ad Litem.  These volunteers are tasked with investigating and determining the needs of abused and neglected children who have entered the social services system.  Their goal, is a safe, secure environment for the child/children advocating through a legal team during court proceedings.  Many lawyers dedicate their pro bono time to aiding the GAL offices in support of their paid staff lawyers.  The paid staff per county is minimal, the system relying on the unpaid services of community minded volunteers.

Many of the more rural counties in NC have a shortage of volunteers for the overall caseload they have.  The more populated counties have numerous volunteers such as Cumberland County, well into the hundreds and still not able to cover everything they do.  While counties such as Hoke and Scotland have a combined office located in Laurinburg and are at a serious deficit with the number of volunteers on staff.

My wife has previously worked as a GAL in Cumberland county and currently as part of her internship for her final college semester is a GAL in the Hoke/Scotland office.  The office she is part of is well understaffed.  Volunteers are needed everywhere and you do not need to be a resident of the county in which you are serving.  Volunteering for this organization means you are an advocate for the child, not the system itself or their parents, but the child.  A judge will use your recommendations in determining the outcome of a case.  It is a unique opportunity in which you get to speak for someone who under other circumstances will not have a voice.

If you are in NC and are interested in making a difference in a child’s life visit this site: http://scotlandgal.weebly.com/.  From there you can find the necessary applications and requirements to become a GAL, they are the same for every county.  There are links to take you to other GAL locations and tons of information.  For folks in states other than NC, each state handles the process a little bit differently and you will have to do a little research in order to see what the process is and what the requirements may be.  Every child deserves someone who can speak for them and their needs alone, you can make a difference.

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