2011-07-13 / Local News

Volunteers provide a voice for children

Guardian ad Litem program is key to reuniting families
By JOE L. HUGHES II Ledger Staff Writer joe@gaffneyledger.com

Everychildhasaavoice;butnoteveryoneofthose is heard.

Providing a voice to children who have been abused and neglected is the state’s volunteer Guardian ad Litem program, working to protect the youth’s interests on a case-by-case basis.

“When you look at it, the parents are represented, D.S.S. (state Department of Social Services) is represented, but what about the child?,” said Kim Ellison, volunteer Guardian ad Litem coordinator for Cherokee County. “That’s where we come in; we are the voice of the child.”

Those choosing to take on the duties of a volunteer Guardian ad Litem perform multiple roles, ranging from investigator, reporter and spokesperson, to being the child’s monitor and protector. In addition, volunteers tend to become advisors, choosing whether it is safer for a youth to return to his or her family or begin anew with another one.

“Our goal is to usually reunite the child with their family,” said local attorney and volunteer Guardian ad Litem advocate Beth Bullock. “The role we play is key in the process and we want to keep them together. But then again, there are times when they must be separated as well.

“For that reason, we must be involved during the tough times, being able to see what they go through. It is a worthwhile commitment.”

During her time in the program, Ellison said she has come to find child abuse knows no financial classes or socioeconomic boundaries, affecting people of all races, colors and creeds.

“I’ve had children of professionals who I’ve worked with, and also been with the lowest of the low,” she said. “It is something that affects all of us; they may be our neighbor, or your child or grandchild may go to school or church with them. They’re all around us and need someone to speak for them and what they are going through.”

According to Ellison, the program currently has a log of cases involving more than 100 children. However, only 12 people have chosen to become volunteers.

“It is a commitment, one we do not take lightly,” said Jamika Mitchell, a Cherokee County volunteer Guardian ad Litem. “The kids — that’s what’s important. If you really want to make a difference in the community, this is the way to do it.

“Sometimes you might have a doubt, but just try it. I think it’s beneficial for anyone to just try.”

Anyone over the age of 21 without a criminal record is permitted to volunteer to become a Guardian ad Litem. All choosing to do so must complete an application form and complete a free 30-hour training course. A new training period begins in August.

“We’ll teach volunteers how to interview, what to look for when interviewing and the signs of abuse,” Ellison said. “Especially during school, where teachers are such good reporters of abuse, we will see an uptick of children coming into care, and our phones will steadily ring.”

With their caseload expected to increase, Ellison said it is important the program continues and local children are not put further at risk.

“We cannot lose this program,” she said. “These children are so appreciative and grateful someone cares what they want and where they want to be. So many times they are unheard, and for the first time they are being heard.”

For more information, contact Ellison at (864) 487- 0145, or e-mail her at galcherokee@oepp.sc.gov.

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