by Paul Bowers
Lois Richter, a circuit coordinator for South Carolina's Guardian Ad Litem Program, will be the first to tell you that the job of a guardian ad litem isn't for everyone.
Guardians ad litem are volunteers who investigate and monitor cases of abuse and neglect involving minor children. "My volunteers are strictly that. The only way I pay them is with a hug and extensive gratitude," Richter says.
In July 2010, S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal signed an order requiring that any time a minor child ends up with a Department of Social Services case that goes to court, a GAL must pair up with the child. Guardians are responsible for meeting with the child at least once a month, writing monthly reports on the child's conditions, and appearing in court to advocate for the child. No prior legal training is required, but volunteers do receive 30 hours of training through the GAL Program, which is under the governor's office in South Carolina.
Because of Justice Toal's requirement of one guardian ad litem per child, Richter's office has experienced a shortage of volunteers in recent years. Some volunteers are taking on as many as five children at a time, and when volunteers are unable to take on a case in the county, Richter or one of her four staff members are required to pick up those cases. Recently, Richter says she and her staff were working on 40 cases at once.
One local guardian ad litem, Zan Coakley, has been volunteering with the program since she read an article about it in 2009, and she calls it "the best thing I've ever done." Coakley, who works as a paralegal, estimates she has taken on about seven to 10 children per year.
"People think that they need to be an attorney," Coakley says. "But you don't have to have anything. The only thing you have to do is have the compassion and the time to care for the children."
Richter says that currently, more guardians ad litem are women than men. She also says she has no Hispanic volunteers, although some bilingual volunteers are able to work with Spanish-speaking children.
In family court, she says, "DSS is the plaintiff. So you've got the DSS attorney and the DSS caseworker. At another table, you've got mom and dad, or whoever the defendants are. Well, you're not going to see children, and if the guardian's not in there, there is no one to speak just to the best interests of the child."
If you are interested in volunteering with the Guardian Ad Litem program, contact Richter at (843) 577-6978. The next training session for volunteers will begin Sept. 9 at the program's downtown office and will consist of Monday and Wednesday sessions from 9 a.m. to noon for five weeks.