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December 1, 2014
This essay is part of the Vocation of Peacemaking series where we asked members and friends of the BPFNA to write brief essays on their peacemaking work. The Vocation of Peacemaking stories come from students, activists, teachers, parents, pastors, lay people, and retirees who work for peace in their jobs, their communities, their families, their volunteer time, and their neighborhoods in a wide variety of ways. Each story is a wonderful reminder that there are as many ways to live a life of peace as there are people, and that we can act for peace in real and important ways wherever we find ourselves.
We will be publishing the stories one at a time over the next several weeks and then compiling them into an Issue Monograph before the end of 2014. The monograph will be available as a free download from the BPFNA website.
Keep checking the Vocation of Peacemaking webpage for more!
When we talk about child abuse rarely does the term “peacemaker” enter the conversation. Often times we cannot or choose not to picture the horrid scenarios in our mind’s eye. Children are innocent. Children are ours to care for and to protect, never harm. Ever.
In my county alone there are more than 700 kids in “the system” on a daily basis. Nationally in the U.S. more than 10,000 foster kids “age out” of care annually; a child enters foster care every 2 minutes! These numbers are staggering. These numbers are unacceptable. These numbers are reality.
Based on the above text, I am guessing you are wondering where peace enters the scenario…
Peace can be sitting in the audience on the front row watching a nervous child perform two lines in the school play.
Peace can be answering a frantic phone call from a teen as he rides the city bus to his therapy appointment, just to give the reassurance he needs to try and open up this time.
Peace can be holding the hand of a 12-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her own father while you are in the courtroom waiting to hear if she will be legally freed for adoption.
A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is the person watching that school play, on that phone call and holding that little girl’s hand. For over four years, being a GAL has been my way of making peace.
A Guardian ad Litem is a court-appointed, trained volunteer who advocates for abused and neglected children. Another term for this role is a CASA volunteer. The words Guardian ad Litem are cumbersome, elitist even. I would love to change the title of my role to Peacemaker. It is succinct, open to just enough interpretation and evokes a positive feeling. That word has never been a synonym for my role, but I think it very well could be one.
The sense of peace I get from serving in this capacity is more than I ever imagined. Surprisingly it is not depressing. It is empowering. It is joy-filled, even magical. These children are much more resilient than you think. They have to be. The unfathomable obstacles they face head-on are enough to crush an adult yet I still hear giggles when they tell me a rambling, knock-knock joke.
I hope as the voice of these children I help them find peace.
As a GAL I monitor to make sure all the child’s needs are met, advocate for them, conduct an independent investigation, make formal recommendations to the judge and report the child’s wishes. I am their constant. So many things change for them – new foster home, new therapist, new social worker. Often times the GAL is the only person there from when they are brought into custody until they find their forever home.
The sense of pride I felt when one of “my” teens graduated from high school and went off to college still brings tears to my eyes. Finding the perfect forever family for “my” special-needs 5-year-old boy is one of the best days of my life. Getting a birthday card in the mail from a family I helped reunite is my peace. There are appalling stories certainly but for every one you read about I can tell you a favorable one from the more than 20 kids I have had the pleasure of knowing over the past four years.
If this sounds like an option for YOUR life of peace, here’s some information about volunteering:
Anyone can be a volunteer. While you need no legal expertise, you need to be compassionate. You need to promote peace. You need to show-up. You need to fight. You need to listen. You need to teach. You need to share a piece of yourself. You need to believe in these children. They are here by no fault of their own.
To be sworn-in, a person must observe a few hours of family court, attend 30 hours of formal training, pass a background check and have three positive references. When I list the requirements that way it sounds easy. Actually it is. Yet there are never enough volunteers for all the children. When a case is unassigned and a child doesn’t have a GAL, the child is seen only twice a year! Data shows having an advocate results in more positive outcomes and shorter lengths of stay in foster care so the need is huge.
Please consider doing this important work! If this is not for you, help these children by talking up the program, awareness is the first step in securing volunteers. Visit www.nccourts.org/citizens/gal or www.casaforchildren.org for information on how you can promote peace in a very real way, in the life of a child.
Sterling Oliver has been a Guardian ad Litem volunteer for more than four years. She resides in Charlotte, NC with her talented architect husband and is the proud mother of two superb boys, ages 10 and 6.