Guardians ad litem fill important role for children
VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — “We are the voices of the children.”
That is how members of the Warren County volunteer guardians ad litem program describe themselves.
But they are much more than that. They are the advocates for children who are the most vulnerable and in danger; the children who are neglected and abused.
The guardian ad litem program began in 2007 when Judge John Price directed Joyce Edmonds to head up the youth court’s volunteer guardian ad litem program. A guardian ad litem can be an attorney and/or a volunteer who is appointed by a judge to represent a child in court proceedings and serve as the eyes, ears and voice for a child in court.
After being appointed by the judge, the guardians ad litem investigate allegations of whether a child has been abused, neglected, in need of supervision and often are involved in resolving custody disputes or delinquent children.
It is one of the very few in the state of Mississippi.
Price said the program is very beneficial to him when he’s dealing with 20-25 cases sometimes a day.
“We couldn’t function up here effectively without it,” Price said. “I don’t have any guardian ad litem that I don’t trust their judgment. They are on top of it. We don’t sugar coat anything in that court room. Their report is detailed out to me so I can make a proper judgment.”
The guardians ad litem gather information from all the parties involved in the case and are allowed to go into schools and talk with the child, and to the home to investigate living conditions and gain more insight about the situation.
Once the investigation is complete, the guardians ad litem recommend to the judge what they believe to be in the best interest of the child. If a child is removed from the custody of the parents, the first goal is to find a family member to place the child while the parent is getting the help they may need in order to create a healthy environment for the child to live in.
The program began with three volunteers, but currently, there are about a dozen volunteers in the guardian ad litem program in Warren County. Most are retired, including former educator Josie Williams. She got involved in the program after spending 31 years as an educator in Vicksburg and was contacted by Edmonds. Being a guardian ad litem hits home for her after her family had to deal with gaining custody of her nephews several years ago.
“My heart is there for children that have to have a voice,” Williams said. “Kids have the potential to be anything in the world they can imagine. They just have to have somebody to speak for them and to be in their court.”
Cissy Coleman who was a mentor in child abuse prevention, felt the need to give back and got involved with the Court Appointed Social Advocate program which led her to the guardian ad litem.
“We are the voices of the children,” Coleman said. “We have the best interest of the child in mind.”
Coleman was among the first to get involved in the GAL program in Vicksburg and said it was difficult at first not to get personally involved in the lives of the children.
“At first, I wanted to just take them home with me,” Coleman said. “You can’t do that, but you still want to make sure the child is taken care of.”
Susie Calbert, who replaced Edmonds after she retired in June, is responsible for recruiting, training and supervising the guardian ad litems, who must annually train and be certified by the Judicial College at Ole Miss.
After a guardian ad litem has completed their investigation of a case, Calbert said, they consult with her.
The report must be in writing and include who the guardian ad litem interviewed and when.
The report with their recommendation is then presented to the judge, who must accept the recommendation unless he is able to show overriding evidence to the contrary.
Those recommendations can include temporary custody at a home like The Children’s Shelter and programs the parents must attend if they want to get their children back. One of the charter board members, she said The Children’s Shelter has been a tremendous plus for the youth court.
“We are recruiting every day,” Calbert said. “We will accept volunteers willing to volunteer with our program.”