Advocates for abused children in short supply
Nearly a thousand abused or neglected children are currently in the custody of Mecklenburg County, waiting for a judge to determine their future. When they get to court, their parents will have attorneys watching out for their interests and the Department of Social Services will be there offering advice on what's best for the whole family. But the child's voice would be lost were it not for a small group of volunteers called Guardians Ad Litem. Right now they're in short supply. WFAE's Julie Rose met with one to learn more. As volunteer opportunities go, there are certainly less stressful ones than being a Guardian Ad Litem. It's not reading to sick children or playing basketball with wayward youth. Guardian Ad Litem volunteers more often find themselves being asked by a judge to make a recommendation that could dramatically change the life of a child. And coming up with that recommendation often means going places they're not welcome - like the home of a mother angry that her child's been taken from her. "I'm not shy about ringing someone's doorbell, someone who I don't know," says Brendan Battle, a Guardian Ad Litem in Mecklenburg County for three years. "That is what's important with the Guardian Ad Litem - that the person has the self confidence to be able to make contacts with people and feel comfortable talking with people regardless of their station in life." Battle was a career FBI agent, so knocking on doors and digging up information isn't much of a stretch. It is for a lot of other people, though. So the county gives volunteers 30 hours of training before assigning them a case or two. Battle has three, which he's required to visit once a month. "To be honest with you, once a month probably isn't enough," says Battle. "I try to see my kids as often as my schedule will permit." During those visits, Battle tries to figure out "whether or not the child should be reunited with its natural parents. Whether it should be put up for adoption or what the final result of this child should be. And one of the ways to find out is to get to know the children. You ask them what they want. " So is it his job to express what the children want? Or what's in their best interest? "Well, we will always tell the judge when we go to court what the children want," says Battle. "We will also tell them what we think is in their best interest. And it may not be exactly the same." The nerve wracking thing, says Battle, is when his recommendation is different from even what the county's social worker recommends. That happened to him about a year ago. The judge took his recommendation. "I felt a little uncomfortable taking a stance which was somewhat different from what DSS wanted done," says Battle. But he says in this case, he was sure it was the right decision because he'd done "a lot of extra work visiting family members and seeing their home environments and visiting grandparents." "I felt very positive the environment these children would be going to was a very safe, loving environment," says Battle. "And as it turns out, I've checked back with them several times after the case was closed and they're all doing fine." Battle says happy endings like that are the reward for his efforts. He signed it up knowing that it would be a hard job. Most Guardian Ad Litem volunteers burn out after just a year or two, precisely because happy endings are rare. Battle says cases can drag on for months because the courts are backlogged or the parents can't get their act together. "It does get very frustrating, and it does hurt," he says. "But we can't keep from looking to the bottom line and that is what's best for this child. And if the mother isn't cutting it, we have to make a decision to tell the judge we don't think this child needs to be reunited. Because we take an oath with the court that we will make recommendations in the child's best interest. So that's what we have to do." After three years, Battle admits his work as a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer is starting to wear on him. He's a youthful 70, but the time he devotes to his cases is several times the average 10 to 12 hours a month volunteers are told to expect. That's time he could be spending with his three grandkids or reading books on the deck of his lakefront home. How long will he continue as a volunteer? "I'm not sure about that," says Battle. "Obviously I'll see the three cases I have now to conclusion." He hedges a bit about what comes next, but the bottom line is he'll take on a few more cases if the county asks. And the county will ask, because there's a pressing need for people like Battle. Only half of the 900 children in state custody in Mecklenburg County have a Guardian Ad Litem watching out for them. The rest must rely on over-stretched social workers who juggle dozens of cases and rarely have time to focus on the needs of a single child.