Commentary: Why We Need Volunteers to Work on Behalf of Our Most Vulnerable Children

Laurel Ferris

“I could never do what you’re doing.” Over the last 12 years, that’s what I’ve heard most often as a volunteer Hennepin County child protection Guardian ad litem (GAL), which technically means “guardian of the lawsuit.” Being a GAL means bearing witness to life’s inequities visited on the most vulnerable children. 

Some of the Guardian ad litem are CASA volunteers (Court Appointed Special Advocates), like me. In Minnesota the appointment is mandated by federal and state law when there are findings of abuse and/or neglect of a child. A Guardian ad litem is not a legal guardian — a custodian acting as a parent — but a legal party to the case and independent advocate for the child. We ask the Court to consider what’s best for the child.

State employees direct every aspect of a family’s case — the “to do” list to repair and restore child safety. But GAL are beholden only to the child. We listen, we observe, we read everything. We hang in there with the family over a period of a year or two as they move through the system.

The volunteers I have worked with are mostly women like me, in the second half of their lives, winding down fulfilling careers in teaching, law, and corporate jobs. But there are men, homemakers, and former child protection recipients doing this work as well. It takes heart and stamina.

Before volunteering, I knew little about the system of child protection beyond what made the headlines. I was naive. All would-be volunteers attend a mandatory 46 hours of training. The first thing you memorize, and repeat throughout, is: don’t make assumptions based on racial background or zip code. It applies to both the volunteers and the families.

All GALs bring their own complex histories into the work, but we don’t have our lives publicly exposed the way court-involved families do. It is humbling. Not all volunteers get past their first case. And the evolution of learning this work takes years. Most of us initially experience shock and denial at the upsetting details of injuries. We feel compelled to “fix it.” Failing that (and we do) we feel overwhelmed.

Ultimately, a sense of hope and efficacy emerges by changing one’s expectations. Today, I am satisfied that if my efforts have made this child’s experience in the system better in any way, even if the improvement is transitory or minor, I accept that and am glad I volunteered.

Continuing education — 15 hours each year — keeps us open minded, but the real learning comes from the families.

It was the end of a case and I sat on a stoop with 12-year-old L. She was the oldest of five children that had three fathers, and she was the only one with no kin options. She wanted a Big Sister who was Black or Latina. For months I pleaded with the Twin Cities program to find one, but no one of that demographic was available. I had failed miserably in the one thing L had ever asked of me.

Our monthly in-home meetings were difficult. Secretly it had been a relief to me when some months were canceled. Now, after two years together, we sat together as I said my goodbye. She abruptly interrupted me and said emphatically “I hate you!” As I was rationalizing that “of course she did,” L demanded: “Why didn’t you come see me more often?” 

That rebuke taught me more than any of my continuing education requirements. It is the voices and anger of children like L that have made me a better advocate and a better person.

Volunteer GALs follow the national CASA protocol; there are 980 CASA program in 49 states and D.C. We take up to five cases at a time, no more. Those five include every minor child within each family unit. Some of the families have four or five children. Often there are special needs involved with one or more of the children.

All GALs — both CASA volunteers and paid employees — are required to have an in-person visit with each child every month. It can get complex and time-consuming when the children are in out-of-home placement with various kin or foster parents. The state employees carry caseloads of up to 30 families.

Children’s voices are not otherwise heard in court, and that’s exactly why we volunteer as Guardian ad litem. It’s a job that is necessary, but our state now wants to move to an all-employee model. Hennepin County has gone from over 400 active volunteers to just 30. The attrition is due to the Minnesota program manager’s decision several years ago to suspend all recruitment and orientation training for new volunteer GALs.

From my point of view, this is a grave mistake. Paid positions are difficult to fill with qualified candidates. Starting wages are $23 per hour, which means that mostly inexperienced college graduates apply for a job that requires an extraordinary amount of maturity and tact. Employee turnover is a constant and the caseloads –– every child in up to 30 families –– will only get higher without the volunteers.

Eliminating the volunteer nature also changes the role of Guardian ad litem. Being an “outsider” provides a perspective others don’t have. It allows one to challenge the status quo and identify new opportunities. We can speak out. Eliminating volunteers, to my mind, will mean that everyone in the courtroom has a vested interest in a system that pays them to be there.

I read the recent Star Tribune article about children who have died after being reunited with family members. I strongly believe volunteer GALs are crucial to the oversight needed to prevent these tragedies. We have the time, the life skills, and the independence to challenge the systemic failures that lead to deaths. We are part of the solution.

The true cost of these changes falls on Minnesota’s most vulnerable.

Related resource: video shared by by KARA about the guardian ad litem issue