The number of volunteer guardians in Stark County Family Court is the lowest in years. The agency is looking for more qualified people to represent the best interest of children in cases of neglect, abuse and dependency.
Pat Hartson remembers when he first met the young boy. The child’s life was unraveling.
His mother was homeless and had health problems. He got in trouble at school. His father passed away.
Mom also made no progress in her case plan with the Stark County Department of Job and Family Services. Parenting classes hadn’t gone well. The reasons she wanted her son back might have been more about her own needs.
While in foster care, the boy had started to thrive. He took interest in sports, music and other things new to him.
Hartson served as his court appointed special advocate/guardian ad litem, representing the youngster’s best interest in the court system. The goal was to reunite the boy with his mother. However, in this case, Hartson recommended the child be adopted. The court agreed it was the best route to stabilize the boy’s life.
Hartson calls it a good ending to an unfortunate situation. At the hearing where it became official, he beamed a sunny smile, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up and then hugged the boy. It’s an example of why Hartson and about 50 others volunteer their time as part of the Stark County Family Court’s Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian Program (CASAL/GAL).
Guardians play a pivotal role in cases of child neglect, abuse and dependency or when the children services division of Job and Family Services files a motion to take permanent custody of a child.
Hartson served as a neutral third-party, investigating the case, meeting with the child and representing him in court hearings.
“I want a child to be in a safe, wholesome environment where they can thrive and make Stark County safe — one child at a time,” said Hartson, a minister and executive director of the Northeastern Ohio Association of Helpers, a Hartville-based group that helps start new churches.
Volunteer guardians have been used since 1982. The number has been around 80 to 100 some years. The current level — 51 — is the lowest Allyson Blake, program director, can recall. The program is looking for more people who qualify to serve as volunteer guardians.
A Facebook page, promoting the program, will start soon, she said.
The more volunteers, the more the work load can be shared. And the more the county saves financially, because it doesn’t have to pay attorneys to handle as many cases.
Attorneys are appointed in some cases, depending on the circumstances and whether a volunteer guardian is available, Blake said.
Attorneys are paid $40 or $50 per hour to serve as a guardian, depending on whether the work is done in or out of court. Each case has a cap of roughly $150 a year.
Page 2 of 3 - “The CASA program is one of two volunteer programs that I think are two of the best volunteer experiences anybody can have because they’re actively involved in decision making,” said Rick DeHeer, administrator of Stark County Family Court, also referring to teen court.
Guardians must pass a background check. Training is also required — 30 hours initially and 12 hours annually— at no cost to the volunteer. Guardians conduct independent investigations and issue written reports making an objective and thorough recommendation. The investigation can include interviews with school officials, the case worker, parents, foster parents, the child, psychologists and others.
Information also may be gathered from medical and court records.
Guardians do not engage the children on a social level. They don’t buy them gifts or take them out for ice cream or to the playground. “We just have to maintain the ultimate objectivity and do what’s best for the children,” said Sue Brenner, who has been a guardian for about two years.
Mary Ann McWhorter has been a guardian for seven years. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor, she could no longer work in the mortgage loan industry. She wanted to volunteer. A relative told her about the guardian program.
“The reason I do it (is) it brings so much satisfaction,” McWhorter said, referring to improving a child’s life and environment. “It brings so much joy to you — you know you’re making a difference in children’s lives.”
Guardians sometimes disagree with the case worker on what’s in the best interest of the child both presently and long-term. “Your voice is your report,” McWhorter said. “And the judge or magistrate makes the decision.”
Guardians can select what case they are comfortable with handling, said Jean Desmond, assistant director of the CASA/GAL program.
And their opinion matters, she said. “Our volunteers know the child best,” Desmond said of those involved in a case.
Case workers may change, Brenner noted. But “we are the constant.” She compared it to forensics work. “We are the ones digging into all the pieces of the puzzle,” she added.
“Our goal is to transition these kids into adulthood where they’ll be responsible and be able to take care of themselves,” said Brenner, a surgical assistant.
Safety concerns may keep someone from volunteering as a guardian, Desmond said. “People feel this type of work is dangerous, and it’s not,” she said. “You’re not a first responder.”
If concerns arise, advice can be sought from the program director or a fellow volunteer. A guardian also can take a case worker or another volunteer with them if they visit a home, McWhorter said.
Brenner encourages others to volunteer as a guardian.
Page 3 of 3 - “I think we’re all obligated to give back to society, and this is what I chose and I felt it was something I could do well,” she said.
Most volunteer guardians serve around five years; some have done it for 16 years.
More are needed, Blake said. “We need like 50,” she said.
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