Guardians speak for neglected children

Published 9:22 am Sunday, February 18, 2007

By By NIKIE MAYO, News Editor
Michele Benson’s eyes fill with tears when she talks about the woman who keeps her involved in the local Guardian ad Litem Program. Benson supervises the program for the second judicial district, ensuring that children who have been abused or neglected have a voice in court.
Benson and the guardians are “pretty good at compartmentalizing,” she said, when they speak for the children in Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Washington and Tyrrell counties who need an advocate. But sometimes, “you take the work home in your heart,” she said.
The Guardian ad Litem Program is staffed entirely by vol-unteers. Guardians are paid only for mileage related to the cases they work. At the moment, the program is woefully understaffed, with only 19 guardians to speak for 103 children in the five-county region. More than half of those cases come from Beaufort County and cases in Martin County have doubled recently. The majority of the children are under the age of 6.
To become a guardian, a person must complete between 18 and 30 hours of training. Instruction is given over the course of two to three weeks, with classes being held in the evenings or on weekends. Training will start again in March, though no certain date has been scheduled.
Guardians work with children from the time an abuse case opens, during the temporary-custody assignment and until a decision about permanent custody is made, whether the children are able to return to their parents or another family member or whether they are adopted by someone else. Being a guardian requires between four and 10 hours of commitment a month, Benson said.
It’s a commitment that veteran guardian JoAnne Greiwe says pays off 10-fold for anyone involved in the program. She has been a guardian for four years and was drawn to the program in part because of her background in social work. But both women are quick to stress that volunteers needn’t have any particular background to become guardians.