BRATTLEBORO — Carrie Storm recruits, trains, coordinates, and supervises Guardians Ad Litem, volunteer guardians in legal proceedings for children in the custody of the Department of Children and Families. GALs advocate for specific children in any court proceeding that affects the child.
Guardians Ad Litem are part of the court system in Vermont. Storm, who is responsible for GALs in Windham County, explained that while any child coming into the custody of the Department of Children and Families must have a GAL present in the courtroom for any proceeding that affects that child, the GAL's work also extends beyond the courtroom.
"Part of being a GAL is appearing in court any time a hearing is held about the child or the child's future," she said. "Outside the court, the GAL is gathering information from and about the child and parties involved with the child. The GAL is attending DCF meetings, talking to schools, medical practitioners, foster parents, birth parents — and to the child him or herself, so that the GAL can represent to the court what's in the child's best interest."
"During that process, the GAL is working very, very closely with the child's attorney — each child has an attorney — but the Gal is also advocating for needed services for the child," she continued. "Everybody's goal is a safe, permanent placement for the child as soon as possible. The hope is always that the child can be reunified with his or her family of origin. If the child can't be reunified with the family of origin, the next best alternative is permanency as soon as possible."
GALs develop relationships with the children they are working with and the team that is supporting the child.
"The GAL should meet with the child at least once a month," Storm said. "The GAL would also be meeting with foster parents, teachers, birth parents, and DCF social workers, and would attend meetings at DCF with parents and foster parents. If the child wants to appear in court, the GAL accompanies the child into the courtroom, explains what's happening and advocates for the child's comfort."
Storm noted that in addition to talking with the children themselves, GALs look for signs that a child is at ease.
"With babies, GALs can look at the body language of children as young as 3 months to see who the child is looking to or whose arms the child settles most easily in," she said. "They're looking for indicators of wellbeing."
GALS do not need any specific professional background or legal experience.
"They need to be able to create a rapport with children," Storm said. "They need to have sound judgment, and they need to be able to navigate a courtroom setting in a way that will benefit the child. We see a lot of retired veterans, who tend to do tremendously well. We see retired (Vermont) Yankee engineers, we see retired principals, teachers, social workers.
"GALS can have jobs," she continued. "We're talking about a time commitment of five to 10 hours per month per child. Of course, if a GAL picks up a case in which there are three children, that case may take more than 10 hours per month. If there's one child and a clear placement, that case may take five hours per month. We talk about a minimum duration of commitment of 18 months, and that's because it can easily take a year to two years to resolve a case, and we try really hard to keep basic stability for the child as much as possible."
There is a shortage of GALs, so Storm is constantly recruiting.
"Right now we have about 20 active GALS," she said. "Ideally, we would have 40, and that would serve the children in the county better. The numbers are ephemeral, but it's safe to say there are more children in state custody in Windham County than there have ever been, and we talk an awful lot at training and amongst ourselves about the opiate addiction epidemic."
The program provides extensive training and support for the volunteers.
"There's an interview that's really quite extensive, Storm said. "There's a very serious background check on the state and federal level, and then the pre-service training. The GAL takes an oath and then is an officer of the court.
Volunteers take part in 32 hours of pre-service training, which is offered in any county statewide.
"A volunteer can go to any training," Storm explained.
"Then they begin to observe in Family Court," she continued. "They begin to see what happens in the court, what roles are being played, and where the GAL fits in in terms of advocacy. After observing three or four times, the GAL would begin to shadow a case with a more experienced GAL. And after shadowing a case or two for maybe three or four months, the GAL would be assigned his or her own case, with likely some extra peer supervision for the first six months or so."
In Windham County, support for the GALs continues past the initial period of training.
"We have an amazing groups of GALs," Storm commented. "We get together on at least a monthly basis for in-service training and peer supervision and support. Our GAL group does an incredible job supporting each other. Some GALS go away for several months, and other GALS cover their cases, and that's OK.
"GALs also sometimes take cases together as a team, so someone is always available to attend hearings for a case," she went on. "Our GALs work really closely together and support each other, and that's important both for the kids they're representing and for the GALs themselves."
Some states pay Guardians Ad Litem, but in Vermont they are unpaid volunteers, although the program reimburses expenses for mileage and long-distance phone calls.
"There have been conversations across the state about paying GALS," Storm noted. "What I can say is, without weighing in on that question, I watch it matter to some kids that the GAL is a volunteer. They understand that this one person is responsible for representing their best interest and their wellbeing to the court, with no other agenda.
"I haven't met a GAL yet that I didn't really like," she concluded. "These are folks who are getting up in the morning and volunteering their free time for kids."
Readers who might be interested in volunteering as a Guardian Ad Litem can contact Carrie Storm at 802-257-2802.
Maggie Brown Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.