At 4 a.m. each weekday morning, attorney Bryan Wilson grabs a cup of coffee and looks over dozens of files of neglected and abused children from southeastern North Carolina. It’s his job to make sure they’re safe during the months — and sometimes years — that their cases trudge through the court system.
Hours later at the Bladen County Courthouse, Wilson ticks through a series of questions for the children’s caretakers and social workers.
Do the kids have stuff to do? Do they look clean and healthy? Are they hitting their developmental milestones? Do they seem happy? Are there toys to play with? Are the lights on in the home? Does the sink work?
Unlike some states that hire workers to advocate for children in court, North Carolina relies on thousands of volunteers who work in conjunction with social workers, foster care families, and attorneys to visit families, conduct interviews, write reports, make recommendations, and testify at court hearings.
But there aren’t enough volunteers to help the thousands of children in the state who need them, and experts say the demand is growing more dire, including in District 13, which encompasses Bladen, Brunswick, and Columbus counties in southeastern North Carolina.
More than 5,000 volunteers take part in the state’s Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program, reportedly saving about $14.2 million a year. In most cases, the goal is to reunite kids with their families.
“We are in desperate need of volunteers,” said Randy Ellis, the volunteer supervisor for the district. “We need more voices; our children need more voices.”
Reports of child abuse and neglect fell throughout the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, when many kids took part in virtual learning and didn’t have face-to-face interaction with teachers and counselors who often alert authorities when they suspect maltreatment.
In 2019, more than 12,000 North Carolina children were assessed for maltreatment each month, according to a report from the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In April 2020, the number fell to about 8,000.
Now, as children return to school, reports are on the rise.
Across District 13, there are 102 GAL volunteers, with most of them in coastal Brunswick County, which is home to a lot of retirees, Ellis said. The 27 volunteers who work in Bladen and Columbus counties are overworked, juggling up to seven cases at a time.
Thirty children in the district currently in state custody due to neglect or abuse — or 15% of all active cases — don’t have someone in court to represent their needs, according to Ellis.
As the GAL attorney for the district, Wilson said he uses the volunteers’ findings to determine the best solutions for the children he represents. “They’re the ones that are the real heroes,” he said. “I’m just the mouthpiece.”
Taking care of their own
Two years after Steve Smith first volunteered in 2017, he founded Friends of Columbus County Guardian Ad Litem.
Smith hoped to find more people like him to help the younger generations of Columbus County. He had recently sold his business and was starting to get involved in other community service endeavors during retirement. Then he read an article in The News Reporter about the shortage of guardians ad litem and decided to sign up.
“That just kind of hit me: It’s not right,” Smith said. “The community needs to do everything it can to take care of its own.”
Smith said he spent 40 to 50 hours in training for GAL, meeting weekly for mock situations. He practiced asking questions of children and family members. He even had homework.
After completing his training, Smith traveled to southwest Columbus County for his first case. A mother in her early 20s, who had an eighth-grade education and struggled with substance abuse, was trying to earn back custody of her children.
To better understand the situation, Smith talked with the kids’ mother, grandmother, teachers, and social worker appointed through the state Division of Social Services.
He gathered court reports, psychological and medical evaluations, and school records. He had the children write letters to the judge expressing their wishes, took pictures of them, and compiled a report that ultimately became evidence in the Columbus County Courthouse.
Even though the goal at first was to reunite the kids with their mom, Smith’s investigation and testimony led to a different avenue. The judge determined the woman hadn’t made enough of an effort to engage in drug treatment and parenting classes.
Ultimately, the grandmother was awarded custody.
A long process
Most cases involving GAL volunteers end with reunification, but the path can be long.
At the Bladen County Courthouse on June 15, Wilson was trying to figure out if the mother of a 1-year-old girl was making enough progress in her case plan to win back custody of her child.
“Is there a bond developing there? Is she doing better than last time?” Wilson asked the grandmother, who was taking care of the child.
Wilson argued the mother was ready for expanded visitation, but not reunification. District Court Judge Pauline Hankins scheduled the next hearing for 2022.
To get back custody of their children, families must show they are making an effort.
One GAL report, which Wilson submitted into evidence, showed that the parents of a 5-year-old boy who had been living with an uncle for seven months weren’t taking parenting classes, weren’t receptive to mental health assistance, couldn’t keep a job, and were possibly abusing drugs.
Still, Wilson advocated for reunification. “They’re not defeated,” he said. “This is only the beginning.”
Wilson said he will continue to track the parents’ progress, and his stance could change if he doesn’t see improvement.
“I’m usually the first one to go, ‘That’s enough,’” Wilson said in an interview. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
If a judge decides reuniting a family isn’t possible, there are several hearings that lead to terminating parental rights. Then a child can be adopted.
Path to adoption
For the past year, Larry and Naomi Griffin, a married couple who both serve as guardians ad litem for Columbus County, have been trying to adopt a 2-year-old boy they’re currently fostering in Bladen County.
On June 15, they sat in court for hours with another foster son.
“I don’t see why it has to take so long,” Larry Griffin said of the adoption process. “When you’ve got a child who needs a great, stable family — any family that wants to adopt that child and give that permanency — it shouldn’t take a year to do it. It’s very frustrating.”
The Griffins said they have attended court hearings about every three months.
Their experience isn’t unique, as judges and attorneys ensure parents have every opportunity to win back custody of their children.
“There are multiple steps in this,” Ellis said.
Ellis, who is also an adoptive parent and has worked for the state’s social services division, said he believes cases that involve guardian ad litems move quicker through court. “I’ve seen these kids languish in the system without representation,” he said. “The guardian ad litem can make a difference.”
Karen Ernst is a guardian ad litem for Columbus County who has represented more than 60 children in court over 16 years. One of her cases languished in the system for eight years before the siblings finally found an adoptive family.
‘We’d love to have you’
Currently, Ernst is responsible for four cases, which is above the average workload of two cases.
“We need more volunteers, so all of our kids can be covered,” Ernst said.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is now getting involved. Starting in the fall semester, graduate students in the school’s social work department will each receive 10 GAL cases.
Rosa Bolden, who currently has seven cases in Bladen and Columbus counties, has also been brainstorming ideas to recruit more volunteers. She hopes to involve local companies that could incentivize volunteerism among employees.
“These children are our future,” Bolden said. “As these kids grow up, they could be employees.”
On June 15, after spending all day in court, Wilson returned home, exhausted yet determined. Before going to sleep, he opened his files one last time and looked at pictures of the hundreds of children in the region who needed help.
To Wilson, the 12-hour days are worth it — even “soul cleansing” — because he’s helping all his young clients find safe, loving, and permanent homes.
“If you’ve got the time out of your busy life to donate one day a month to help these children, we’d love to have you,” Wilson said.
Anyone interested in volunteering as a guardian ad litem can apply online at www.volunteerforgal.org. The next training period will begin in October.