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North Carolina’s most vulnerable children need your help

Neglected or abused children who become involved with the state’s courts or social services agencies often find themselves with nowhere to turn — or worse, torn between two parents.

Together with attorneys, guardians ad litem serve as child advocates, but right now, there aren’t enough. 

“Honestly, we are short,” said Maria Parrish, supervisor for the state’s guardian ad litem program. “In the last year, the numbers have grown a lot, so right now we are short volunteers. Our goal is to have 100% of those cases covered, so we definitely need volunteers.”

The term “ad litem” comes from the Latin, “for the purpose of the suit.” Guardians ad litem are neutral parties who act in the best interests of the child. In some states, they’re called “special advocates” and part of a program called CASA, which stands for “court appointed special advocate.”

Parrish said that across the state, the GAL program serves 18,000 children in need through the generous assistance of more than 5,300 volunteers. But in Haywood County, there are currently around 160 cases of neglect or abuse, and only 35 to 40 volunteers to help.

A former GAL volunteer herself, Parrish has been a supervisor for four years. If she can’t recruit enough volunteers to cover each and every case, she does so herself, but that takes away from time she could be spending on administration and on training new volunteers.

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“Our mission is to be a voice for the children in our community,” she said.

After applying, volunteers are subject to a background check and go through 30 hours of training over eight weeks, which can be flexible for those who truly want to serve. Then, when investigators determine that a GAL is needed, they appoint one who together with attorneys determines the needs of the child and acts as an independent advocate. 

Tess Fernandes is one of them. A semi-retired yoga instructor in Haywood County, Fernandes has a degree in child development but a background in hospitality.

“It really just came up in a conversation,” she said. “I had a friend that was working as a teacher and a guardian ad litem who stopped by and this teacher just shared a little bit about the program and I said, ‘That’s really interesting,’ because it combines a lot of skills that I can contribute with my background with kids and with putting out fires in hospitality.”

Over the past two years, Fernandes has been appointed to four cases.

“Every single story is different,” she said. “But you know, they’re all in the system for a reason, and just watching them just grow and thrive and heal is truly beautiful.”

Fernandes said that the work is crucial, and as a volunteer she feels it’s rewarding.

“It’s always nice when you know that a judge is reading directly from your report,” she said. “That’s important to me, as I feel like the guardian ad litem is really heard. The reports that we write and the work that we do is absolutely noticed, and makes it makes a difference. I have seen that personally with my kiddos, with my cases.”

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