Enquirer Herald

York Co. volunteers needed to be voice of children

One case ended in the adoption of a 5-year-old foster child. Another helped a kindergartner learn to read. Yet another formed a bond with a 12-year-old through a mutual interest in water sports.

These cases illustrate natural connections for Pam Gibbes-Smith, a Tega Cay resident and participant in York County's guardian ad litem program since 2009. A passion for young people led the mother of three grown children to become the "family court judge's eyes and ears" for others.

"It's not a smiles-and-grins kind of volunteer work," said Gibbes-Smith.

Yet it's work Helena Salem Roberts couldn't let slip by once she heard about it. The Lake Wylie resident read about a training program in the newspaper similar to the one being offered Sept. 13 to Oct. 13. She has her own first-grader, so she thought of children who might not have someone in their corner.

"I'm the child's advocate in the courtroom," Salem Roberts said. "I go visit the children, whoever I'm assigned to. It's like I'm their voice in the courtroom."

Guardian ad litem volunteers go to the schools, doctor offices and other locations where they can find information on case children to use in legal recommendations for custody. They also meet regularly with abused, abandoned or neglected children in settings other than the home or with a Department of Social Services worker.

"I'm someone who they can confide in," said Salem Roberts. "I guess they feel more comfortable with me. It's different."

Gibbes-Smith said it can be scary feeling like she's capable of making custody recommendations, especially when judges almost always give preference to the guardian ad litem decision. She's worked eight cases and has one now. Spending time eating lunch with children at school or meeting them at times convenient to her and the child gives her resolve in the work she doesn't plan to quit anytime soon.

"If you've got a passion for children, just know that this isn't something that's going to go away," she said. "Whether we do anything or don't do anything, the problem exists."

Kevin Woodall began as county coordinator for the program three weeks ago. Fort Mill and Rock Hill lead the way for York County volunteers. Western York County still needs more volunteers, he said.

"Our program is designed to train volunteers, everyday people, to be a voice for abused and neglected children," Woodall said. "The volunteer becomes a constant in the child's life at a time when there's not a lot of constants."

The program isn't in dire need of volunteers, Woodall said, but it is running about 50 percent over target for child-to-guardian ratio. Ideally, guardians have less than two children at once. Currently, there are a little more than 100 volunteers countywide, with more than 300 cases.

Plus, there's a significant need for more men.

"We'd like to have more male volunteers," Woodall said. "There are a lot of males who we place in homes who could benefit from having a male involved."

Gibbes-Smith says men of all ethnicities are "desperately" needed to help identify and connect with the children. One of her biggest challenges is going from "just another middle-aged white woman" to becoming a friend in the eyes of children.

"You want the child to believe this person has my best interests at heart," Gibbes-Smith said.

The free training begins Sept. 13 and is open to anyone age 21 or older who passes background and reference checks. Classes accumulate 30 hours in 10 sessions. Participants completing the class are asked to accept at least one case and meet at least once a month with a child age infant to 18. The goal, Woodall said, is to find a "safe, permanent home as quickly as possible."

"You have a fairly good idea of what you're supposed to do," Gibbes-Smith said of her training.

Volunteers say each case is different, and they aren't sure what to expect with each new one. Yet common to all of them is the importance of what they're doing for a child in need.

"It may not be living with the family," Gibbes-Smith said of a given recommendation. "It may not be going home to mom. It may be."