News 13 Investigates: Volunteer shortage leaves children without a voice in court

A Guardian ad Litem advocates for children during court hearings. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Nearly 20,000 children throughout North Carolina faced an uncertain future last year. Many were without a permanent home because their parents were battling a drug addiction.

The Guardian ad Litem program provides volunteers to help advocate for those children during court proceedings as a judge determines their permanent home.

The program says during the last fiscal year, they represented more than 17,000 children with more than 5,000 volunteers.

But, they say as their case load has increased, the number of volunteers has not, leaving many children without a voice.

Emily Shirley started volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem eight years ago in McDowell County. She says, at the time, she had to wait weeks before a case was assigned to her.

Now, it's a completely different story. She says 69 children are currently waiting for a volunteer.

"You aren't going to be able to serve this explosion of kids with the same number of people in small counties," Shirley said.

Shirley says the reason is connected to the recent increase in opioid and heroin addictions. As the epidemic hits more parents, more children are left in state custody.

Shirley says many of their cases are almost unimaginable.

"We've had several cases in the past couple years of children testing positive for meth because there was so much being manufactured or used in the home, and they can actually absorb that through their skin," she said.

Shirley says when the state steps in, so do volunteers like herself. "When you come to court, you're bringing that child's voice into the courtroom, saying, 'I'm not just a sad story that you read,'" she said.

Jennifer Nehlsen works for the Guardian ad Litem program in Buncombe County and says volunteers spend hours learning the specific needs of the child they're assigned.

"They are going out in the community, digging up everything they can, learning the most about these kids so they can go in to court and advocate for their best interest," Nehlsen said.

Nehlsen explains parents usually have an attorney and the Department of Social Services is involved, but a Guardian ad Litem is the only voice for the child as a judge decides where their future will unfold.

"Heroin, other opioids right now, they're just ravaging families," Nehlsen said.

She says almost every case these days involves drugs.

"Oh goodness, it is a huge factor right now. I'd say over 95 percent of our cases have substance abuse as a factor," Nehlsen said.

But as the cases have grown, the number of volunteers has not.

Right now in McDowell County, more than a third of the kids have no one assigned to their case. In Rutherford County, 20 percent are without a volunteer. In Henderson County, 16 percent are waiting for a voice.

Shirley says that's when a staff member must step in. But in rural areas like McDowell, there is only one employee for the entire county. Shirley says that person simply can't provide the same level of support.

"Thinking about what a person is able to do covering 69 kids, there's no way that things aren't getting missed," Shirley said.

She says it's hard to see so many children left hanging every day because of a crisis that can't be controlled.

"It's not just people going to jail, people going to the hospital, it's also entire families, entire nieghborhoods, entire communities affected by this," Shirley said.

The Guardian ad Litem programs in the counties News 13 spoke with say they are in need of more volunteers.

They go through six weeks of training.

Buncombe County has a training session on March 29 from 5:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. at the Goodwill on Patton Avenue.

For more information on the program, just visit the Guardian ad Litem website.

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