By Evan Johnson
RUTLAND—When cases involving families go to court, there are lawyers present for every one of the parties involved.
“Everyone in court has an attorney,” said Matt Garcia, an attorney from Windsor. “The mom has an attorney, the dad, has an attorney, the state and DCF have an attorney.”
While attorneys represent the interests of their clients, the children involved in the case require their own advocate, a person who recognizes their needs not as a client but as someone who requires assistance during what can be one of the most traumatic experiences imaginable. For the nearly 1,400 children in the custody of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF), that responsibility falls to a volunteer appointed by the court, called a guardian ad litem (GAL).
“They’re concerned with finding whatever the child needs to be OK,” Garcia said.
The demand for these volunteers has grown. According to a 2015 report to the Vermont Legislature, the number of children in the custody of DCF has jumped by a third since the beginning of 2014, with the sharpest increase occurring among children under age 6.
“With the increase of children in the custody of the state, that increases the need for GALs in the same way,” said Garcia, who has been a GAL for the past four and a half years. “There is always a need.”
In Vermont, every ward of the state is assigned a guardian ad litem (GAL) who works with that child for the duration of the case, until he or she achieves permanency. For some, this can be a period of weeks; for others it can last until the age of 18 and they become an adult in the eyes of the law.
Proctor resident Rita Rinehart has been a GAL for the past 16 years, retiring from her job as a high school teacher. When she meets a new case, she has a piece of paper in her hand that describes why the child is in state custody. While every case is different, GALs meet regularly with the child and communicate with the parents, other family members or caregivers, including DCF case workers, school staff, therapists and physicians to determine what the child needs.
In this regard, Rinehart from Proctor likens it to detective work.
“Your job is to figure out what’s going on,” she said. “And from there it can go in any of a hundred directions.”
The work can be emotionally taxing.
“There are some times that you go home and want to cry,” she said. “But there are times when you leave courtroom smiling because something has gone right. It depends on the instance and the length of time it takes to get something accomplished. Sometimes that can take years.”
Before they start to work on cases, new guardians ad litem receive training from the Vermont Judiciary on how the court system proceeds in cases involving families. They learn how to work with children coming from various backgrounds and also recognize signs of drug and physical abuse.
The variety of cases that GALs are assigned to can range from infants who are born addicted to drugs to truant teenagers.
“There’s a huge range of kids and possible problems that you can encounter, which is why it’s so complicated,” Garcia said.
In each of these situations, GAL volunteers say their job involves lots of time listening to the child they’re working with and acting as a liaison between the child, the court, the DCF and other parties that are working to resolve the case.
Goshen resident Diane Mott has been volunteering for over 20 years since she retired from her career as a case worker in the Department for Children and Families. In her tenure, she’s worked with over 1,000 children and says she enjoys working with teenagers the most. “They can tell you what’s on their mind and you can be honest with them and they understand,” she said. “What I like is telling them what’s going to happen; what they can do and can’t do.”
Much of the work of a GAL involves fostering a bond of trust with the child she’s working with. “Helping kids to make it is a real reward,” she said. “If you’ve had kids or not, spending time with a teenager or a kid that needs someone to listen to them and take their side and get them orientated toward success is a real reward.”
Last year in Rutland, a man recognized her in Walmart. She had worked with him in a past case some 20 years ago and there in the aisles of the shopping center, he told her the impact she had on him at a time when he needed it.
“He told me, ‘I want to let you know that the reason I sent all three of my sons through college was because of you,’” she said. “It made me feel fabulous. That’s his success story and it’s my success story too.”
For her, that’s the sign of a job well done. “You put that in your pocket and you say, ‘Done’,” she said.
By Evan Johnson