Volunteers needed to represent abused children in court

The guardian ad litem program looks out for the legal interests of thousands of abused and neglected children in courts across the state.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Last year, approximately 17,700 abused and neglected children ended up in North Carolina courtrooms.

As the state courts decide what is best for these children, a volunteer advocate, called a guardian ad litem, is appointed to represent the child and his or her best interests.

Last year, the state held a record 38,628 child abuse and neglect hearings.

Established by the General Assembly in 1983, the guardian ad litem program statewide has 64 offices, approximately 100 attorneys and more than 4,600 volunteers. The term is Latin for someone appointed a guardian "only for purposes of litigation."

The state director of the program, Jane Volland, says the continued rise of child abuse means more volunteers are desperately needed.

"The volunteers are needed, because they're really the backbone of the program," she said. "They're the voice for the children."

Earlier this year, the program kicked off a campaign to recruit more volunteers, who need no legal background. They are required to go through 25 hours of training.

Melissa St. John, who has volunteered with the program for two years, says her experience has helped her see the world in a different way.

"Children are so incredibly resilient and so incredibly strong, and I think I've learned a whole new respect for children by being a part of this program," she said.

Wake County's chief district judge, Robert Rader, says the program is about more than just crisis management.

When children are abused and don't get the help they need, studies show they often can end up in the criminal justice system as defendants.

"I think you've got a lot of kids who are at risk for problems in the future," Rader said. "If you don't address those issues early, the probability that they are going to end up in jail or prison or the juvenile criminal justice system is very high."

Preventing this outcome motivates volunteers like St. John.

"Sometimes, it takes longer than others, but I think ultimately, with everyone working together, we can establish a safe and positive environment for most children," she said.


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