Were you a child once?
Are you compassionate, curious and know how to ask the right questions?
Guardian ad Litem wants you to be the voice for Brown County’s littlest citizens.
“What is more precious in a community than its children? Anything we can do to protect those children, we have a responsibility to do that,” said Sallyann Murphey, GAL director.
Guardian ad Litem volunteers are appointed officials who represent the interests of a child in a court case. Volunteers often work alongside attorneys and social workers.
GALs must represent children in CHINS — Child in Need of Services — cases. CHINS cases are opened when the Department of Child Services determines that a child is being abused or neglected and DCS intervention is necessary.
The agency is currently serving 51 children.
GALs also handle divorce custody disputes and guardianship cases — when they have enough volunteers.
But with 12 volunteers and an increase in CHINS cases, there isn’t enough manpower to handle those cases right now. They are placed on a waiting list, Murphey said.
In an aging community like Brown County, guardianship cases often involve senior citizens, Murphey said. Families may be seeking guardianship of a person who can no longer take care of themselves. A GAL can be appointed to make sure everything is being done in the best interest of that person.
One GAL volunteer, whom Murphey considered to be a “specialist” in senior guardianship, recently retired making that need even more apparent.
Along with that growing waiting list, GAL’s CHINS cases have nearly doubled in the past three years, with more than 90 percent of the Brown County cases relating to substance abuse.
It’s a statewide problem, Murphey said.
“Every single county across the state, in urban, suburban, rural, north to south, everyone has had a huge increase in cases,” she said.
To handle the work, Murphey needs at least 18 volunteers.
Along with substance abuse, poverty is another problem influencing the caseload in Brown County.
“Quite often, those two end up going together,” Murphey said. “Sometimes it seems like an easy way to earn money.”
Another growing trend is young mothers — some of whom are single — with substance abuse problems.
“That’s immediately critical because they often have very young children,” she said.
DCS and GAL agree 85 to 90 percent of the time about the direction of a case, Murphey said.
However, their goals differ slightly.
The goal of DCS is to reunite and strengthen the family while protecting the children. GAL looks at the situation entirely from the child’s point of view, Murphey said.
“Very often we’re in favor of, but there are times where we might feel that another parent is more appropriate or that there’s another member of the family who might be (more appropriate). We look at it purely from the child’s point of view. What’s in the best interest of that child?” she said.
A person interested in becoming a GAL volunteer will take a workshop on what the work entails.Previously, volunteers had to take a 40-hour class before taking on a case.
“It made more sense to have them intern with me on a case rather than just sitting in class,” Murphey said.
During the internship, volunteers slowly will begin to tackle tasks as they gain more experience.
As soon as Murphey thinks the volunteer is ready to take a case alone, the volunteer is sworn in.
For people who want to help children in Brown County but may not have the time or resources to commit to being a foster parent, becoming a GAL volunteer is another alternative.
On average, each case takes about 40 to 50 hours a year.
When a volunteer first starts, the time commitment is eight to 10 hours in the first month to six weeks. After the initial interviews are over, the time commitment decreases.
Murphey requires volunteers to meet with families involved in a case at least once a month, but she prefers two. That totals about two hours a month.
Every three to six months, volunteers will attend a court hearing for which they will need to prepare a report. Murphey helps.
Along with being compassionate and curious, an ideal GAL volunteer would be able to communicate well and form relationships with the family — and most importantly, the child, Murphey said.
Volunteers must also pass background checks.
Since the role requires some investigation to figure out what exactly is going on in a child’s life, a volunteer would also need to know how to ask the right questions and look beyond what is right in front of them, Murphey added.
Murphey said people overestimate what being a GAL volunteer requires. She often hears, “How do you do it?”
It’s all worth it, she said.
“Of course, you’re going to see things that are sad and situations that are frustrating, but also you’re going to form relationships that will enrich your life,” she said.
“It’s such a great alternative (to being a foster parent). It’s one of the few volunteer positions where I can guarantee you’ll make a difference in someone’s life.”
Contact Director Sallyann Murphey at 812-340-8894 or GALbrowncounty@gmail.com.
“I am happy to meet people and have coffee just to talk more. They don’t have to commit,” Murphey said.