YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Yakima County is struggling with a shortage of guardian ad litems, the advocates responsible for representing the interests of children in court proceedings.
“We are the voice for the child in court,” said Teresa Davis, guardian ad litem and program coordinator with the Yakima County Child Advocate Program. “We report directly to the judge or the commissioner in what the best interest is of the child.”
Whether the question is which parent gets custody in a divorce or where a child gets placed in cases of alleged abuse, guardian ad litems get to know the kid, visit their home and family, and tell a judge where they believe the child should be placed.
“We support the parents if parents are doing their services they’re visiting with the child — that’s what we want,” Davis said. “We want to see the family back together. We want those children to be safe.”
However, there are cases where a child’s home is not a place where they can be safe. Davis pointed to one case she handled about four years ago.
“We were returning to a parent, getting ready to dismiss, and when I went to do a home visit, the child was just beside herself,” Davis said. “We found out later that that mom had turned back to her old ways.”
Davis said thanks to that home visit, the child ended up being placed with her grandfather instead.
“You get to positively affect these little lives,” Davis said.
Davis said the job of a guardian ad litem is also to support children who have been neglected or abused, becoming the one person who helps them through their ordeal in the court system and keeps their best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, there are only about a half-dozen full-time, paid guardian ad litems on staff for the hundreds of children going through custody proceedings in the Yakima County court system.
The county’s child advocate program has served 510 children so far this year. Currently, they have about 150 open cases involving approximately 300 children.
“Right now, each of us has about 65 children on a caseload,” Davis said. “So, yes, we are spread pretty thin.”
They do have 10 volunteer guardian ad litems, but they only handle one case at a time and they’re actively trying to recruit more volunteers to help them with their case load.
Davis said the more volunteers they have, the more time each person can spend with the child or children on their case. She said that extra time can be incredibly valuable.
“We can learn more about the child and their family,” Davis said. “We can better let the court know what’s in the best interest of the child.”
In order to apply, you must be at least 21 years old and pass a background check. If everything checks out, you must complete an online training course for about two hours a week over an eight-week period.
Davis said, following that, volunteers will be able to do a little job shadowing, read up on their first case, see the child or children involved in the case once a month and prepare a court report once every six months.
“Someone with a full time job could easily take this on,” Davis said. “We’ll hold your hand through through the whole thing.”
Anyone wanting to apply to be a volunteer guardian ad litem can contact Yakima County Court Appointed Special Advocates administrative supervisor Keith Gilbertson at 509-574-2071 or learn more about the program here.
“It can be very, very rewarding,” Davis said. “These children need you.”
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