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New volunteers stand for children in court

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Pitt County Chief District Court Judge P. Gwynett Hilburn swore in five new volunteers for the Guardian Ad Litem program last month. The new volunteers are, from left, Ericka Espejo, Heidi Zinke, Lindsay Deans, Brianna Gill, Martin Cox Jr.


By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Monday, September 11, 2017

They come from different walks of life but share a common desire to help children.

Pitt County Chief District Court Judge P. Gwynett Hilburn swore in five new volunteers for the Guardian ad Litem program last month, each promising to advocate for abused and neglected children in Pitt County.

The new recruits bring the total number of active volunteers in Pitt County to 66, said Laura L. Staton, North Carolina Guardian ad Litem recruiter for N.C. Judicial District 3A, Pitt County, and District 2, Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

The state of North Carolina launched the Guardian ad Litem more than 30 years ago. The program assigns an individual to advocate for the best interests of a child in cases involving alleged abuse or neglect.

A Guardian ad Litem volunteer is different from a social worker, who represents the social services department that has custody of a child. The social worker works to ensure a child’s safety by providing services to the child and parents with the ultimate goal being finding the child a safe, permanent home. The Guardian ad Litem focuses entirely on the child, advocating for special services, if needed, finding the necessary community resources and speaking for the child in court.

“It is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, said Staton, who was volunteered for nine years. “Kids are our future and the need is great.

“There aren’t a lot of stable forces in their lives but the Guardian ad Litem remains consistent throughout their time in the legal system,” she said.

Currently 190 Pitt County children are receiving services through the Guardian ad Litem program. There are 112 children receiving services in Judicial District 2’s five counties, Staton said.

Volunteers are sworn in after completing 30 hours of training. Martin Cox and Brianna Gill were among the group sworn in last month.

Cox, 32, is a case manager and licensed mental health therapist.

“I was interested in being one because of the role they play in assisting families and being the voice of kids. A lot of my work experience is working with kids and I like the idea of advocating for kids,” Cox said.

Gill is pursuing a criminal justice degree at East Carolina University, having transferred this fall from Wake Technical Community College. She was discussing internship opportunities with her adviser and the discussion turned to Guardian ad Litem.

“I love kids anyway. To hear there is an opportunity to get involved in the community and get my foot in the court system at the same time, it was a perfect match for with. It was an exciting opportunity when I heard about it,” she said.

Gill has already discussed possible assignments with her supervisor.

Volunteers work an average of eight hours a month, Staton said. Volunteers have to visit their assigned client at least once a month.

The average length of a case is one year, she said, although some can last until a child ages out of the social services system.

Along with visiting the child clients, guardians interview individuals involved in the case, reviewing reports and attending court.

Gill said with the exception of the court appearances, guardians have flexibility in setting up interviews and visits. She said when she interviewed for her current job as a restaurant hostess, she arranged to have Thursdays off because that is when most family court cases are held in Pitt County.

Cox said his supervisor is a proponent of community involvement and would support times he needs to be off work for court.

Even with this new group of volunteers, Staton said more help is needed.

“It’s vital work is only made possible by dedicated volunteers who are committed to the cause of keeping children safe from future harm,” she said.

Individuals interested becoming a volunteer or learning more about the program can contact the local Guardian ad Litem office at 252-695-7325, or go to www.volunteerforgal.org.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her onTwitter @GingerLGDR.