Imagine yourself as a toddler. Imagine you are being carried away from your home in nothing but a diaper on a cold January night by a uniformed police officer, a stranger to you. Imagine someone in the home scrambling to throw some clothing or a teddy bear into a garbage sack to send along with you.
Imagine your confusion and fear.
And then imagine that someone steps forward on your behalf, someone who cares only about you and what’s best for you.
That’s the role volunteer Guardians ad Litem (GALs for short) play in Idaho. They are part of the Court Appointed Special Advocates program that began in Ada County in 1989. At that time there were 15 cases of child abuse and neglect in the county, and 15 volunteer GALs acted as the eyes and ears of the court on behalf of the child’s best interests.
Family Advocates has been operating CASA in Ada County since its inception. That is when the Junior League, the Boise Bar Association and Family Advocates received permission from Juvenile Magistrate Richard Grant to initiate a pilot Guardian ad Litem program in Ada County, with the stipulation that volunteer legal counsel be included in test cases.
In 1982, the CASA program officially accepted its first child protection referral. In 1986, Family Advocates, with attorney Eric Haff, took an active role in working with legislators to revise the Child Protection Act to clearly define the role of a GAL, making the member a party to the legal action and gaining approval for state funding.
As a result, Idaho law requires that a volunteer must be assigned as the GAL in a child abuse and neglect case for children under 12 years of age. Our CASA program receives funding based on that stipulation. However, Family Advocates does not have enough people to advocate for the child’s best interest in any of our counties. We need volunteers just like you.
Guardians come from many walks of life. Teachers, physicists, tow truck drivers and attorneys are just a few of our volunteers. Requirements to become a GAL are care, compassion, and time. The Family Advocates’ trained staff provide the rest. You, too, can help children in your neighborhood.
Since the 1980s we have seen a year-over-year growth in cases of child abuse in the counties where we offer volunteer support. In Ada County, that number has soared to 231 this calendar year alone. Ada County is only one county we serve. To keep up, we need more volunteers to be the voice of logic, reason and advocacy in the courtrooms on behalf of children who often cannot speak for themselves.
Children’s lives are at stake. To learn more about saving those lives, visit strongandsafe.org and consider volunteering your time for this most important program.
Jaime Hansen is the executive director of Family Advocate Program Inc., which has locations in Boise and Caldwell.