The number of volunteers stepping up to advocate on behalf of the state’s most vulnerable children in family court has soared over the past five in Richland County, even as the number of volunteers has sharply declined statewide.
Participation rates for the state’s guardian ad litem have dropped almost 25 percent since 2014, but the state’s only autonomous county-based program has seen its roster of volunteers representing neglected and abused children rise by nearly 90 percent, figures from Richland County and the state show.
Guardian ad litems are advocates appointed by the courts and charged with conducting investigations, independent of the Department of Social Services, and then filing reports outlining what they believe is in the best interest of the child they speak for.
South Carolina has two guardian ad litem programs: The Cass Elias McCarter Guardian ad Litem program, which is run by the state, and the Richland County Court Appointed Special Advocates program (CASA).
The latter program was started in the early 1980s, a few years before the state legislature implemented the statewide program. Since the program was already up and running, it remained autonomous and is considered a branch of Richland County.
CASA saw its volunteer membership rise to 804 from 426 since 2014, an increase of 88 percent, said Paige Greene, director of CASA.
The state program, meanwhile, currently has 1,700 volunteers, down from the 2,200 it had in 2014, and a decrease of 23 percent, said Kelly Oakley, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Administration.
Greene attributes CASA’s success to its being locally based and having the resources, through the county and its own non-profit foundation, to devote to operating the program and recruiting and retaining volunteers.
”We have diversified funding, and we are truly a Richland County department,” she said.
CASA is able to reach out directly to community stakeholders in a unique way in South Carolina, Greene said.
“Your best resources are community volunteers who are concerned about the children in their community,” she said. “The people who work, breath, pray, and play in the community are your best resources.”
What men want
To that end, every three months the program hosts a recruiting party called Quarterback CASA. Typically held at a local restaurant or sports bar, the event is geared toward recruiting men. About half of the children the program represents are boys, and the program wants its volunteer roster to match that. Right now, about 25 percent of the volunteers are men.
Greene said program officials asked men in Richland County what they value most, and they said, ‘God, family, and football,” so the program went with the football theme.
“What is the worst thing a man can do in football?” Greene said. “In football, they can’t drop the ball, and the [volunteers] are never, ever to drop that ball on that child. There are so many places where people can volunteer and worthy causes, and this is a very, very difficult job. Dealing with child abuse is grueling. When you are not sitting in court or reading cases about children with broken bones, we want to provide an atmosphere that is supportive and where people are valued. It’s a fun group to join.”
Each event costs about $750, or $3,000 per year. The events, paid for by the foundation, started in 2007, so the program has spent around $30,000 on the parties through 2017. Since then, the events have resulted in the recruitment of 153 men, which averages out to a cost of $214 for each recruit.
That investment offered a great return, considering the men spend hours upon hours representing abused and neglected children, Greene said.
The program has also concentrated on recruiting African-American volunteers.
“One of the first things I realized when I came to CASA is that we needed to diversify this organization,” Greene said. “If there were an overlay of demographics of our children, staff, board of directors, and volunteers, they should mirror each other as closely as possible. We have made tremendous efforts and have been very successful.”
Right now, 60 percent of volunteers are African-American and 37 percent are Caucasian, almost the exact inverse of what the numbers looked like ten years ago. Of the 1,078 children CASA currently serves, 73 percent are African-American and 14 percent are Caucasian.
The state’s efforts
For its part, the state GAL program receives internet referrals and uses newspapers and other media outlets to recruit volunteers, Coakley said.
“Staff members regularly conduct presentations in the community to raise awareness of the program and encourage people to volunteer,” she said.
“Regardless of the county, volunteering as a GAL is challenging due to the emotional nature of advocating for children who’ve been abused or neglected. There has been an increased number of children placed out of their home county, which can require some GAL volunteers to travel long distances to conduct child visits. That isn’t always possible for a volunteer to do.”
State law requires that an attorney represent the child along with the guardian ad litem during judicial proceedings, so the state contracts with attorneys, Coakley said, but funding is limited.
“The GAL Program would certainly entertain the idea of qualified attorneys providing legal services on a pro bono basis as long as program requirements for such services can be maintained,” Coakley said.
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