Voices needed in family court for area children

Guardian ad litem shortage means kids lack advocates

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — The children of parents with addictions need a voice, according to Judge Allison Arms. Those willing to serve as guardians ad litem can provide that voice.

“They are witnessing their parents, who can’t help it, at their worst, and they need a voice,” said Arms, the Franklin County Superior Court-Family Division judge.

But right now that voice is missing. Arms had eight cases come before her last week without a guardian.

Guardians get involved in all aspects of a juvenile case, attending case meetings at the Dept. of Children and Families (DCF), visiting children in their foster homes, sometimes meeting with educators, parents and even therapists, as well as attending court hearings.

“We really get to see the whole child in all their different situations,” said Jan Young of St. Albans, a longtime guardian. “We’re the eyes and ears of the court. The judge doesn’t go out in the home.”

“They bear witness at a really intimate level to all the horrors that happen to these families,” said Arms.

Guardians are also the only people involved with the case whose sole responsibility is to the child. “The guardians are the only ones that are not paid to take a position,” said Young. “We’re an independent voice for the child.”

GALs are required in all juvenile cases by law, and may also be assigned in divorce, domestic abuse cases, and child support cases if the judge deems them necessary.

“We are characterizing our GAL shortage as a crisis,” said Arms.

The shortage of guardians ad litem is part of a larger crisis impacted the entire court system, most especially here in Franklin County.

Last September, there were 131 abuse and neglect cases pending on the county’s juvenile court docket. By the end of June, that number had risen to 149.

This week, there are 167 abuse and neglect cases before the court.

Most of those cases involve a parent with an addiction, said Arms.

That explosion in cases is also impacting guardians. Forty-two percent of Franklin County’s guardians have more than 25 children they’re responsible for.

Young, who has 43 cases, has also become involved in foster parenting and wanted to do less as a guardian. She hasn’t yet, however. “I just cannot leave all these kids without representation,” she said. “Every week more kids come into custody.”

Guardians don’t have to take on a caseload the size of Young’s, said David Kennedy, the statewide program manager. Statewide, 35 percent of guardians have less than five children.

Volunteers can just do a case or two at a time, he explained.

Guardians first go through a three-day training. Next, they’re mentored by an experienced guardian, and they start with a small caseload, explained Kennedy.

The immediate need is so great that members of the Franklin-Grand Isle Bar Association have volunteered to serve as guardians. Local attorneys have also been doing pro bono work in the family court to help with the explosion in cases, according to Arms.

Longer cases

The problem isn’t just more cases. It’s also more complicated cases.

Young said that when she first became a guardian in the last 1990s cases tended to involve physical abuse and neglect.

Now the abuse and neglect are subtler. “The abuse comes when the parent can’t take care of the child or is neglecting the child because they’re strung out on drugs,” she said.

“There’s a huge option of redemption,” said Arms. But for parents with addiction that redemption may take awhile as they struggle through repeated efforts to end their habit.

“The relapse rate is just unbelievable,” said Young, raising the question of when is it safe for the child to return home. And returning home is what the kids want, she added.

With cases taking as long as two years to resolve, the guardian is often the person who has been with the case from the beginning. Judges change. Lawyers and caseworkers may change, but the guardian is usually the same.

It is “that long view, that stable, consistent view” which can be of benefit to the court, said Arms.

It’s also a benefit for the child, having at least one person who is there throughout the process.

“They’re investing in the lives of these kids and their families,” said Arms. “It’s a huge responsibility.”

It can be a rewarding one, according to Robert Fricke who is serving as an interim coordinator for local guardians, an 8-hour per week position.

“You see the good as well as the bad,” he said, including children reunified with recovered parents or children moving on to a stable, permanent home.

Sometimes, depending on the age of the child and the circumstances, the guardian may develop a supportive relationship with the child, said Fricke, explaining that happens less often with very young children.

“It’s a very rewarding, meaningful opportunity to be a guardian,” said Young. “Without us the children often get lost in that bureaucracy.”

“Everybody has more than they should have so it’s easy sometimes for things to slip through the cracks,” said Fricke. Guardians, because they are involved in so many aspects of the case, can help to prevent that, in part by providing information.

“Quite often the guardian is able to bring something into the conversation others aren’t aware of,” said Fricke.

“DCF is just trying to keep their head above water,” said Young. “We as guardians ensure that everybody is doing their job.”

A hint of light

For the courts, at least, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

As of last month, a waiting room for jurors becomes a courtroom 2-3 days per week, and a judge will be coming up part-time from Chittenden County to help with the workload.

To create the space, Superior Court Clerk Gaye Paquette had to be resourceful, paying for the computer and other equipment with a grant and borrowing a bench for the judge from Lamoille County.

“Everybody here has been really, really great about doing what needed to be done without movement in Montpelier,” said Arms. “The need couldn’t wait.”

There has also been some movement at the state level. The public defender’s office has added more resources to Franklin County, according to Arms. State’s attorney Jim Hughes confirmed this morning that his office will be hiring an additional attorney dedicated to child protection cases.

The state, however, can’t allocate funds for more guardians. They’re volunteers.

Anyone interested in becoming a guardian ad litem, can fill out an application online at http://bit.ly/2bofdKI.

They may also contact Mary Mossey at the court by calling 527-5413.

An open house for those interested in possibly being guardians ad litem will be Friday, Sept. 2 at noon at the Franklin County Superior Courthouse on Lake Street.