When I was younger, every year, my family would visit my grandmother for Christmas in her small Ohio town, and my cousins who lived nearby would join us. Under her mantle, covered in Santa Claus figurines, and a real tree decked with decades-old ornaments sat a mountain of presents, with an equal number of boxes for us all.
We repeated the tradition every year, and notwithstanding my grandparents’ divorce before I hit my teens — after which my grandfather relocated to South Carolina and my grandmother moved a few times in her town — there weren’t many changes to our routine.
A few years later, my grandmother started taking foster kids, but they were usually in and out before we ever met them. I will never forget the two years Joseph was there. He stayed with my grandmother for a while, and was too young for me to know how to relate to him at the time, but it was my first direct interaction with the foster-care system. I grew up sheltered, and until then only viewed foster care through the lens of Angels in the Outfield and Free Willy.
There are hundreds of kids like Joseph who go through the Guilford County foster-care system every month, and thanks to the Guardian ad Litem program, 330 of them receive one-on-one support from an advocate whose only role is to look out for their best interests.
Utilizing six staff members and 160 trained volunteers, the GAL program saves North Carolina an estimated $2 million annually by representing and advocating for youth going through the system.
Decades ago, when a judge in Seattle realized youth going through the foster system didn’t have anyone to specifically represent them, he helped push for what would become the nationwide Court Appointed Special Advocate program, the umbrella group that GAL’s work falls under in every state.
The Guardians in Guilford County have come from nearly every imaginable background, but many of them are young — usually at least 23 — and stay on for roughly two years. The kids they serve have an array of backgrounds too, though most come from families below the poverty line, and sometimes boys stay in the system longer then girls.
Regardless of where the kids come from, Mary Wessling, a program supervisor who has worked with over 200 youth, has never met one she didn’t like, and their vitality has given her the strength over the last 12 years to continue the work.
“Really, they are my heroes,” said Wessling, who mostly works with teens. “I don’t know how they go through what they go through and still have a sense of humor, and have goals and still know how to love. Whoever they are as a real person comes through.”
Katelyn Cline, a 24-year old social work student at UNCG, has only been a Guardian since January, was surprised how quickly she built a relationship with the teenager she was assigned to help. Besides developing a connection with him, her role is to independently investigate his foster-home setup and school and family life so she can prepare a court report and be a resource for the teen.
She knew she liked working with kids, and after being exposed to the program last semester and realizing more about the depth of the issue, Cline couldn’t turn away from it, and didn’t want to. Her responsibilities vary from week to week, but when she runs into problems Cline said the GAL staff is incredibly supportive and understanding.
Like Wessling and Cline, Guardian Seleita Tinsley emphasized that kids in the foster-care system have been deprived of the ability to just be kids.
She started as a volunteer in the program in 2010 when she was an undergraduate, and now that she’s graduated she is working with two kids, one who is just 2 years old.
“These children have been through a lot and they really need our help,” Tinsley said. “I never knew all this stuff was happening.”
Cline said youth in the foster-care system aren’t given as much leeway to mess up as most teenagers. Wessling worked with one kid who went through 50 different homes, and was so used to moving that he wouldn’t unpack, once sitting on a bed at a group home and just waiting until he was kicked out, a reality he saw as inevitable.
People frequently don’t understand the full picture of what youth go through and could be better about considering their background, Cline said. Poverty, in particular, she said, contributes to the problem, and policies need to be changed to deal with it.
Yet as large and serious as the issue is, it’s easy for her to pull away from the big picture when she’s working one on one with a child. Wessling expects the volunteers to give the children undivided attention when they are together, and volunteers take their roles seriously. Though the GAL program could use more volunteers, Tinsley said only people who can be really committed to the youth should get involved.
The Guardian ad Litem program trains volunteers three times a year to work with youth, and will be participating in an awarenessraising event April 19 at Government Plaza in Greensboro from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. as part of Child Abuse Prevention Month. The event is put on in conjunction with a number of other organizations to help educate people about how they can support youth and crucial programs like GAL that provide kids with priceless resources: time, attention and care.