(Host) Every day, courts in Vermont make rulings that can profoundly affect a child. The decisions can involve custody disputes, victims of abuse or neglect, and children who have committed crimes. In each case, it’s the job of a “guardian ad litem” to make sure the court acts in the child’s best interests. Vermont’s system of volunteer guardians ad litem is being squeezed between increasing demands and a lack of resources.
As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, a court appointed committee is trying to find solutions.
(Zind) They never star in courtroom television dramas, but the guardian ad litem – Latin for “guardian at law” – is a familiar figure in real life courtrooms. In a world of crowded dockets, busy lawyers, lengthy court proceedings and overtaxed social services, the guardian ad litem’s responsibility is make sure the system doesn’t lose sight of the needs of the child.
Many work on behalf of the victims of abuse and neglect. They work independently of the court and the state. Amy Davenport is a family court judge in Windsor County. For her, a guardian ad litem acts as a reality check.
(Davenport) “I listen to the evidence, they listen to the evidence. And then at the end of the evidence, they give me a recommendation about what they think should happen. And for me, that’s a check on me. If I have a guardian who I think is a good guardian, who gets up and says the exact opposite of what I’m thinking, I know I need to check my thinking.”
(Zind) The guardian’s role is so critical that the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that the absence of a guardian in a case involving a juvenile is a basis for overturning a decision.
Vermont’s guardians are all volunteers. More than two-thirds are retirees – like John Bisbee. Bisbee has been a guardian for over 15 years, working mainly with very young children.
(Bisbee) “I go to the school and talk to the teachers and guidance counselors and so on. I go to talk with the pediatrician, I go to the day care centers. The public defender doesn’t have the time to go to those places that I’ve gone to.”
(Zind) Many of the children Bisbee advocates for are victims of sexual or physical abuse. He’s says he’s sometimes asked if he enjoys the work.
(Bisbee) “No, it’s not something that one ‘enjoys.’ You’re dealing with some pretty tragic situations usually.”
(Zind) But Bisbee says it’s rewarding to know you’re helping children. He spends 20 hours a week as a guardian ad litem. That’s less than the 30 hours he used to put in. He had to learn to say no when asked to take on more cases. Guardians are under constant pressure to increase their work load because there’s a critical shortage.
Statewide, fewer than 200 volunteers handle nearly 2,500 cases annually. Judge Davenport says it’s a formula for burn out.
(Davenport) “We lost guardians because we didn’t have enough. And so we gave the ones that we had – some of them were great – we gave them too many cases and we lost them.”
(Zind) Along with an increasing caseload, the job of being a guardian ad litem has become much more complex. Windham Family Court Judge Kate Hayes.
(Hayes) “A child whom a guardian ad litem is advocating for may be receiving services from the local mental health agency; they may be receiving special educational services; they may be getting all kinds of help with physical disabilities; there may be issues around alcohol and substance abuse. And the guardian ad litem ideally is up to speed on all of that.”
(Zind) Hayes says there are many dedicated and competent guardians, but heavy caseloads and lack of support and supervision create problems. There have been complaints from judges about the quality of the work of some guardians.
Charles Olivetti is the guardian ad litem program statewide coordinator. Olivetti is the only paid person in the program and he says it takes more than a staff of one to oversee the state’s guardians. Olivetti says Vermont actually needs about five times as many guardians and more paid staff to supervise them.
(Olivetti) “It’s not the program’s need. I’m talking about the kids of the state that need these adults.”
(Zind) Olivetti’s job is about to become more difficult. A federal grant that helps pay his salary ends in July. The position will likely be cut to part-time.
Judge Hayes says in the short run, courts will have to find a way to make up for the loss of a full time guardian ad litem coordinator. In the long term, she says the program needs more money and – most importantly – more volunteers. Hayes chairs a committee looking into how to accomplish that. She says everything is on the table, including a complete restructuring of the program.
Whatever changes are made, it’s likely Vermont’s guardian ad litem program will continue to rely on volunteers. But to work well, it will need many more like John Bisbee.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.