Over the last years, the numbers of children in Vermont’s juvenile docket have mostly increased. In fiscal year 2018,125 abuse and neglect cases were filed in Windham County, and 1100 state-wide. Additional cases were filed in situations where children were chronically truant or beyond parents’ control. At present, 154 Windham County children are in state custody, living with family members, foster families, or placed in residential facilities. Another 19 live with their parents under Conditional Custody Orders with supervision by the Department of Children and Families. This is one place where the effects of opiates and other addictions, the challenges of homelessness, and the repercussions of mental health illness and domestic violence show up. Together, they have strained the judicial and social welfare resources which are designed to help families.
In every case, a volunteer Guardian ad Litem or GAL is appointed by the Court to help determine what is in the child’s best interest. Volunteer GALs come from all walks of life and share an interest in children, an ability to keep an open mind, and some time to offer. Every applicant receives a background check and an interview. GALs have the privilege of sitting beside children and families during this period of crisis in which there is concern for the child’s safety and whether the family can adequately provide for their basic needs. GALs are given access to confidential information so they can participate knowledgably in legal proceedings that seek safe permanency, hopefully with their own family. They visit each child every month, attend any hearings, and participate out-of-court to support reunification or, if necessary, to find a new forever family.
GALS also learn a lot about the serious consequences of adverse childhood experiences and what can be done to mitigate them. GALs see children who have been hurt but also watch them grow and flourish. They watch parents learn to parent safely and sometimes see them make courageous decisions to let go when they understand they cannot.
As one part of a communal team that may include family, present caregivers, school staff, health care providers, family service workers, attorneys and more, GALs do their best to help children understand what is happening to them, make sure their voices are heard, and make difficult recommendations about what is in their best interest. Since no one has a crystal ball and even the best intentioned interventions can cause harm, there aren’t any simple answers. A GAL’s job is to make the process a little easier for a child to endure, to give the plans and goals which the Court adopts more integrity, and to increase the likelihood that conditions improve in a lasting way.
A training for new GALs is planned this fall on September 20, 27 and October 4. To learn more: search for “GAL” at vermontjudiciary.org, write firstname.lastname@example.org, or attend an Open House at 30 Putney Road on Wednesday, August 14 from 10-11:30am.
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