Many news sources report that the Vermont Department for Children and Families, or DCF, is having to take responsibility for rapidly increasing numbers of children.
Last month in Windham County alone, one hundred and seventy eight children in state custody were placed with family members, in foster families, or in residential facilities. In addition, sixty two were living with their parents under Conditional Custody Orders – with DCF responsible for ensuring that those parents are complying with the court’s expectations.
By law, all these children must have not only an attorney, but a Guardian Ad Litem to advocate for the child’s best interest. The guardians gather information to bring to court, and help the child understand his or her situation, since attorneys are often much too busy with legal details. Guardians attend all court proceedings concerning the children and meet with them at least once a month – but that’s just the beginning.
I’m a Guardian ad Litem myself, and in my own efforts to gather information I visit schools or daycare centers to observe children and meet with their teachers. I attend parent-child visits to see how the parents and children interact; and most importantly, I visit children at home or in their foster placements, to ask how things are going and help the child understand what’s happening.
Sadly, I usually can’t explain what will happen, or when, because no one knows. Their future depends on their parents’ willingness and ability to meet the states’ minimal standards for parenting – providing food and clothing, safe and stable housing, and access to medical care and education. And until it’s clear their parents can do that, the children live in limbo.
That’s especially hard for children old enough to understand time, but too young to think in terms of the months or years that it may take to fully resolve their situation. I try to reassure them that everyone is on their team, and I offer encouragement to parents trying their best for their children, and heartfelt gratitude to foster parents – who, on a moment’s notice, will take in children who may have experienced a whole range of traumas.
As the number of children in state custody grows, Vermont is beginning to see a serious shortage of Guardians Ad Litem. But it’s easy to volunteer by clicking on “Programs and Services”at vermontjudiciary.org - and a three-day training starts in late September.