Court guardians

SW residents get satisfaction - if not hugs - by advocating for children in need

Susan Gaines became an advocate for children after her neighbor called the cops and accused Gaines of child abuse.

Her neighbor heard her 3-year-old boy having a temper tantrum in the car. Once the toddler was asleep in Gaines' arms inside their home, four police officers knocked on the door armed with a report of a child being hurt.

Gaines was frantic to make them understand she wasn't an abusive mom, but she remained calm and told the cops what happened.

When they asked if they could check his back for bruises, she began to sob.

"What would stop them from taking him out of my arms?" she remembers thinking.

She wrote a magazine story about her experience, based on interviews with law enforcement, social workers and child protection services workers. She learned that the process is complicated and not impulsive; children aren't removed from their homes without just cause. She also found that children themselves have a voice, someone who looks out for their best interest: a guardian ad litem.

Guardians ad litem are court-appointed volunteers who attend all court hearings, work with professionals on the case, review written materials, talk to people who know the child, and eventually make recommendations to the judge about the best interests of the child.

When Gaines, a Lynnhurst resident, became a guardian two years ago, she responded to a critical need in Hennepin County. Of 881 active cases, 235 do not have a guardian assigned. Between 400 and 500 abused and neglected children are not served by a guardian ad litem because of a shortage of volunteers.

Not warm and fuzzy Reports of child abuse and neglect come from either professionals, such as teachers, psychiatrists and doctors who are mandated to pass along the information, or voluntary reporters, such as neighbors or family members.

A county screener takes the report and tries to determine if the report is truly neglect or abuse. The county also files a report with law enforcement.

If the situation involves abuse or neglect, there is usually a joint investigation between the county and the police. County workers interview the alleged victim and other family members to find out if the child is safe and if services, such as parenting instruction or drug treatment, are needed from the county. Law enforcement officers remove children from the home only if there is reason to believe the child is in imminent danger.

Once a child is removed and a judge decides that the court needs to be involved, the case is assigned to a guardian.

"We'd like to have a guardian on all of our cases," said Lynne MacBean of the Hennepin County Guardian Ad Litem Program.

When a guardian is assigned a case, he or she interviews as many people as possible to get a good picture of the child's life. Often, guardians will meet children in their foster homes, go to the parents' home, and talk to teachers and social workers.

Guardians attend a 40-hour training session, receive on-going supervision and complete eight hours of continuing education annually--but other than that, they don't need any special training.

Guardians are asked to give an 18-month commitment to the program because often cases will take that long to be resolved.

MacBean is clear that guardians are not mentors or childcare workers.

"Guardians are responsible to children, not for children," she said. "This is not a warm, fuzzy, put-them-to-bed volunteer job. We want to set up a support system, not be the support system."

This support system is extremely important to judges who hear these cases. Judges rely on the guardians to report the information they learned during their interviews, and offer a unique perspective--one other than child protection or the parents.

"Our first concern is to keep the child safe," Judge Robert Blaeser said. "At some point in time, I have to determine if the parents have done enough so I feel comfortable returning the child to the home. The guardian will say, 'they have,' or 'they haven't' because of these reasons. They are there to stand for the child's best interest."

Children at risk Guardians ad litem are needed even more now because of an increase in child protection cases.

In the last five years, child protection cases increased 26 percent. There are 1,600 new cases each year, and 600 cases a year where parental rights are terminated, said Judge Robert Blaeser.

In 2000, there were 2,611 cases of child abuse and neglect in Hennepin County--out of 7,728 for the entire state. Clearly, the metro area has the highest number of cases.

It's difficult, however, to keep accurate count of abused and neglected children, said Diane Benjamin of The Children's Defense Fund. "There are probably more cases that we don't know about, and there are probably mistakes made when assessing these cases."

Benjamin said it's also hard to categorize abused or neglected children. She said low-income children are over-represented in the system, and African American and Native American families are more likely to be in the system on all levels.

"There are a lot of theories about why this is so--and there are a combination of factors," Benjamin said. "Because they are involved in other county programs, these families are more likely to come to the attention of the system. Also, they are not able to access other services that more wealthy families can. And there is also probably some racial bias in the system."

She said that other factors, such as drug or alcohol addiction, play a role in neglect and physical abuse cases also.

"I would gladly take my pink slip, if there weren't any abused or neglected kids," said Marti Swanson, legal services specialist with Hennepin County's Guardian Ad Litem Program. "All of the volunteers would like to be out of work if that was the case."

Making a difference Denny Schapiro, a Minneapolis School Board member, has been volunteering as a guardian ad litem for four years. He has eight cases right now, involving about 20 children.

"I'm getting to know some really good kids," said Schapiro of Linden Hills. "There is something really nice about it. You spend time with these kids, and you think, 'maybe at the edge I can make a difference.'"

Schapiro knows that in a few instances, he has already made a difference.

In one case, he was able to get in touch with the children's father, who had recently completed a drug treatment program in another state and gotten remarried. The father was very interested in gaining custody of his children--and the kids were happy to be with their dad. In another case,

Schapiro advocated for a certain type of medication that the county had originally deemed too expensive.

"I said, 'This is what this kid needs,' and I think it really helped him," Schapiro said.

Susan Gaines has had similar experiences. She said part of the reason guardians can offer such good advice is that a guardian usually spends the most time on a case--following the child and keeping in touch with social workers and teachers.

"We are told in training to think outside the box," she said. "We can recommend all kinds of things because we are looking at the best interest of the child."

She said that defining "best interest" is sometimes difficult because guardians have to constantly step out of their own judgments about what they think a child needs or wants.

"There's not a lot of stories like, 'And then they lived happily ever after,'" said Gaines. "And there's not a lot of 'the child throws his arms around you and says thank you.'

"But there is always a direct connection with the kids. The kids don't judge you, they trust you. You are instantly rewarded by the kids, and that really is the thanks."

Guardian Ad Litem Program of the Hennepin County District Court

Defined: Latin for "guardian for the suit." Appointed by a judge to represent a child's best interest during court proceedings

To Volunteer: There is no special degree or prior educational requirement to serve as a child advocate. Every guardian attends a 40-hour pre-service training program, and guardians accept case assignments as their time allows. On average, guardians volunteer 5 hours a month to a case and handle two cases at a time. Each guardians commits to volunteer for at least 18 months, and must be able to attend day-time meetings.

For more information: call 348-6824 or visit www.friendsofchildren.com.