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Hebenstreit: Making a Difference in a Child's Life

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IBA-hebenstreitTake a minute to engage in a little imagining. Pretend that you are a 7th grade boy. You have never spent an entire school year at only one school having been moved around constantly by your parents. Your Father is in prison for child molestation and your Mother has just taken off leaving you with a friend. Then you discover that your Mother has also filed for divorce. What is going to happen to you? With whom will you live? How will you live? Well, sadly, this is not unreal. It was a real case handled by a volunteer for Kid’s Voice of Indiana who had been appointed by the Court as a Guardian ad Litem for the young man. That volunteer Guardian ad Litem (GAL) was able to locate a family friend and persuaded the Court to place the youngster with that friend who was not only able, but interested, in raising him. A happy, but unusual ending.

Recently, I attended an IndyBar sponsored seminar conducted by Judge Pat McCarty and several Magistrates and Commissioners of the Marion Superior Court. It was a breakfast roundtable focused on family law matters. Several questions during that seminar dealt with Guardians ad Litem. The judicial officers were unanimous in their praise of the work the GAL’s do and the significant benefit these volunteers provide to the Court. Having previously been appointed to serve as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) I fully understood their message and hoped perhaps I could use this column to both explain the significant role CASA volunteers play and encourage some of you to volunteer.

First of all, a GAL is only involved in the family law case as an advocate for the child or children. Family law cases are frequently quite contentious and often the parents become more interested in self centered victories than what is truly best for the family. That is only normal, but it is not uncommon that the children are the ones who are the big losers in such contests. The role of the GAL is to stand up for the child and provide information to the Court about what is in the best interests of the child. The GAL accomplishes that task by meeting with the children, the parents, teachers, family and relatives and any other significant adults in the lives of the child. Frequently, what is best for the child is not what the parents believe is the best. But in a Party A v. Party B world, it is the parents who have attorneys advocating for them, leaving the child without a voice in the significant proceedings.

Without being overly simplistic, there are essentially three ways to be appointed a GAL in Marion County. The first is for a judicial officer to ask you and then issue an order appointing you to the position. The second is to agree to be a volunteer with either Child Advocates or Kid’s Voice. Both operate effectively in Marion County and each serves a slightly different type of legal matter. According to attorney Derelle Watson-Duvall, Kid’s Voice uses volunteers in primarily custody cases. The judicial officers serve as the gatekeepers who determine if Kid’s Voice should be appointed in a given case. An appropriate volunteer is then assigned to the case who serves as the fact finder. Staff from Kid’s Voice assists the volunteer with the project and represents the GAL in Court. Typically, the GAL prepares a written report for the Court, but frequently is called as a witness to actually testify at hearings. Unfortunately, Kid’s Voice can only handle about 115 cases at any given time. They have about 125 volunteers, of which 89 are attorneys, who collectively handled 363 cases in 2010. In addition to attorneys, they also use the services of law students, paralegals, law firm staff, and community volunteers to serve as the GAL’s. The need far exceeds the capacity.

The other major provider is Child Advocates, Inc. They are the largest CASA program in the state, and under the leadership of attorney Cindy Booth, Child Advocates has two primary areas of service. They use in house social workers and attorneys to serve as CASA’s in custody cases. They also serve as CASA’s in all CHINS cases in Marion County. This is where they have a huge need for volunteers. CHINS is an acronym for Children in Need of Services and most CHINS cases are handled by the Marion Juvenile Court. Essentially, the State asserts that the affected children are not being properly care for by their parents, and the State requests different levels of care up to and including the termination of parental right of the child’s parents. Volunteers are assigned a staffer who will assist and guide the GAL along the way. Ms. Booth stated that their goal is to have 250 volunteers in 2012.

According to Leslie Dunn, the attorney with the Indiana Supreme Court who monitors GAL services statewide, the work of a GAL is less legal and more family relationship work. It involves working with the family helping to solve complex family problems and entails a good bit of social work. A good GAL will spend time with typically dysfunctional parents as well as the children. The assignment is not about winning and losing. Rather, the initial part of the task is fact-finding followed by problem solving.

In an interview with Judge David Shaheed of the Marion Superior Court, it was quite clear that the largest unmet need for pro bono legal service in Marion County is in the area of family law. But, is it realistic to expect a real estate development attorney to self educate himself to be able to accept a family law case? Possibly not, but attorneys of any area of practice are qualified to serve as a GAL. In fact, paralegals and staff are also welcomed by the agencies. Both agencies host extensive training programs for their volunteers. The Child Advocates training is a 30 hour program and is offered about 10 times per year. They will agree to hold it at a law firm if that is requested by the firm. Kid’s Voice offers a 6 hour training with their next one beginning on February 20, 2012. They have applied for CLE credit and all new volunteers in both agencies are urged to take the training. No knowledge of family law is needed to qualify.

As we head into the holidays and the New Year, consider making it a New Year’s Resolution for 2012. According to Cindy Booth, there is always a need for committed people who are interested in making a difference. This sentiment was echoed by Ms. Dunn who stated that it is a unique opportunity for an attorney to make an impact. It provides a chance for new lawyers to gain experience and provide a worthwhile service at the same time. Both agencies would welcome your contact. You may call Derelle Watson-Duvall of Kid’s Voice at 558-2870 extension 323 or email Child Advocates at childadvocates.net. Start up the New Year committed to making a difference.•

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