By Peter Solet
The next best place to Paradise — that’s the way many folks, natives and transplants alike, describe Madison County, “Jewel of the Blue Ridge.” From Spring Creek to Spillcorn, Mars Hill to Marshall, Madison has it all—majesty, tranquility, verdant farmland, and small-town streets.
However, for abused and neglected children—children the Department of Social Services (DSS) has had to remove from their homes—Madison is anything but a paradise. You’ve heard about them, children who live in foster care, in group homes, or with kin while they wend their way through a complex system with few of the resources most families take for granted. Who advocates for these children? Who is their voice in Court?
In Madison County, three women—Sheryl Muscacchio, Elaine Robbins, and Colleen Boll—are just such advocates, Guardians ad Litem, trained community volunteers appointed by the Court to represent children in DSS cases. Recently I sat down with Colleen and Elaine over coffee at Zuma’s in Marshall to discuss their involvement with the program—their reasons for joining the program, their experiences, as well as their backgrounds. It seemed fitting that we could see the County Courthouse, where Juvenile Court is held, across Main Street. (Please note that details about cases can’t be divulged because of the need for confidentiality).
Elaine, who has been a Guardian ad Litem (Latin for “guardian just for this case”) in Madison for two years, is a retired lawyer who moved here more than four years ago from Washington, DC.
“I like the fact that I can use my life experience in this capacity,” she said, “and that there is a shortage of volunteers I can help fill. I’ve had one case that most likely will result in adoption,” she added, “which often is the best-case scenario, as well as a case that resulted in reunification. The time and effort are well worth it.”
Other plusses, she told me, include being a unique voice in the process, getting to know the community better, and moving into a new direction in her life now that she’s a resident. At present she has three active cases.
Colleen is the newest volunteer. She finished her training last fall and now has three cases. She said she read a story in a newspaper that sparked her interest.
“It sounded important,” she said, “being an independent advocate. I’m not shy about giving my opinion, believe me.”
Colleen told me she retired from social work in 2000 when she moved here from Florida with her husband, who died in 2009. She said she also had been a volunteer at a mental health clinic in Florida and at Mountin’ Hopes, a therapeutic riding center in Mars Hill that shut its doors in 2011.
When I spoke on the phone with Sheryl, she told me she moved to the area about 18 years ago and has been a Guardian ad Litem for five years. She said she’s raised one child of her own and three stepchildren, has five cases at present, holds down a full-time job, and also maintains a home. She said she’d also read an article that sparked her interest.
“It was about child abuse prevention and it mentioned the program,” she said with a voice that exuded positive energy. “I instantly knew this was something I wanted to do, so I contacted the Guardian ad Litem office. My only qualifications are being a mom.”
She said she’s had her share of heartbreak and of joy, especially those times when a child is reunited with parents and returns home or when an optimal placement is made.
“I can’t imagine stopping,” she said. “I’ve even considered becoming a foster parent or adopting a child
According to John Lewis, who has been Program Director for the past 18 years, Sheryl, Elaine, and Colleen operate entirely independently of any other interest, including those of DSS, schools, caregivers, parents, etc., and thus are in a unique position in the often-lengthy process of producing the most positive outcome—a safe, nurturing environment for each child.
“Perhaps the most important aspect of being a Guardian ad Litem,” he said, “is developing a consistent relationship with the child that reinforces to that child you are their advocate and have their best interests at heart.”
John said children caught in the system may have differing stories but all are dealing with forces they have little direct influence over, such as parents, Social Workers, judges, and others. They have endured every type of abuse, all shades of neglect, and now must wait while their futures hang in the balance.
“Every child in this position deserves a Guardian ad Litem,” he said.
All well and good. But the sad fact is that Sheryl, Elaine, and Colleen are standing neck-deep in a torrent of need.
“At present,” John told me, “38 children in Madison County who should have a Guardian ad Litem must go without. These children are missing direct contact with someone focused exclusively on them, adults they can identify with as their advocates. We need a total of 12 volunteers to provide for every child.”
And although one recruit will begin training soon, and two other people have expressed interest, this still would leave the program anywhere from six to eight volunteers short. So John and Program Specialist Rebecca Deyton must scramble, try to close the gap, make child visits, attend meetings, and draw up recommendations as best they can.
“A Guardian ad Litem,” John said, “would have much more of an impact. Without an appointed volunteer, the GAL Attorney Advocate may not have all the relevant information for the Judge. The ideal situation and best practice standard is for each child to have a volunteer paired with the Attorney Advocate,” he said, “and anything less than that, unfortunately, may diminish providing the very best advocacy for the child. We aren’t rubber stamps. The Court takes our independent recommendations very seriously. Sheryl, Elaine, and Colleen are making a distinct difference but obviously we need more volunteers with commitment and dedication like theirs to help more of these children get through myriad and often tragic experiences and have the best chances to thrive. We all must be part of any solution. Abuse and neglect affect the entire community.”
There are no special requirements or qualifications to be a Guardian ad Litem, John says. The program seeks members of the community with varied backgrounds. The training is thorough and it’s important to note that Guardians ad Litem choose only the cases they wish to take.
If you’d like to know more, the Guardian ad Litem office can be reached at (828) 273-2573, or email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem program website.
Pete Solet lives in Marshall. He has been connected with the Guardian ad Litem Program for five years. He can be reached at email@example.com.