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A Child Advocate's Story: Speaking for the Troubled

Court-appointed volunteers help kids through courts, foster care

'MY life changes the moment I open the envelope,'' writes Gay Courter, best-selling author and documentary-maker.

A child's name, a birth date, and a collection of papers detailing the case history of the child are before her. Perhaps the child is an apparent victim of sexual abuse. Or her parents have thrown her out of the house for unruly behavior. Or she is herself accused of committing a ghastly crime.

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Whatever the circumstance, ''the envelope'' also contains a document from the judicial circuit court asking Mrs. Courter to serve as a volunteer advocate for the child, to investigate the child's case, determine his or her best interests, and make recommendations to the judge.

She calls it ''my license to care.''

In her new nonfiction book, ''I Speak For This Child: True Stories of a Child Advocate'' (Crown), Courter introduces readers to Lydia Ryan (not her real name) and two sets of teenage siblings, all of whom wind up in the custody of the state of Florida because of parental neglect and abuse. None of the kids are angels, but as their ''advocate,'' Courter earns their trust and learns to love each of them for who they are.

Most important, as her book describes in compelling detail, she helps them find their way through the maze of the foster-care system, court battles, and family dramas.

In Courter's home state of Florida, such court-appointed children's advocates are called Guardians ad Litem. In other states, they are called ''court-appointed special advocates.'' Usually they are volunteers. Across the country, in all 50 states, about 37,000 people represent more than 116,000 children. But there are far from enough: Only about one-quarter of eligible children are assigned ''guardians.''

Programs for court-appointed advocates were started in the late 1970s by a judge in Washington State who, Courter writes, ''was kept up at night by the Solomon-like decisions he had to hand down in family court without really knowing what was best for the child in question.''

''These are kids who have nothing, who aren't going to get out of the system unless they have some advocacy,'' Courter says in an interview. ''So we are the eyes and ears of the judge. We go out and report back in a nonbiased way what we see.''

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Suppose a mother says she's been attending parenting classes. A guardian can go out and discover that, in fact, she attended only two classes out of 12. Or, Courter says, ''we'll go to the house and say, 'The kid has been telling me she's hungry.' I opened the refrigerator and only saw bologna and beer. So we present objective evidence that way. We are actually investigators.''

Because the judge grants guardians wide access to documents and people involved in a case, she says, ''we're very different from just a do-gooder with good intentions.''

And, whereas a social worker might be burdened with red tape and a heavy caseload, a guardian typically takes on only one or two cases at a time and can do the legwork needed to pin down the facts of a situation. (Guardians in Courter's district volunteer 10 to 20 hours a month.)

The child doesn't live with the guardian and usually doesn't even know the guardian's home phone number or address to protect the guardian's privacy. Judges have learned that the people the children do live with, often foster parents, are not the best advocates. Because they are paid by the state, they have a financial interest; sometimes foster parents are themselves abusers.

In Florida, no particular background is needed to become a guardian, though in some states guardians must be lawyers. But, Courter says, after the extensive screening and training process, volunteer guardians are guided every step of the way by professionals -- lawyers, social workers, and experienced guardians -- who supervise the program.

''You're not supposed to put yourself in physical danger,'' Courter says. ''There are some cases where I will not go to a parent's home, they have to come to me at the court.''

''I've dealt with fathers who've been in jail and gotten out, and people with violent pasts and guns and things. But there is a common denominator, which is [that] you know the children. I don't generally confront them in a way to say, 'Hey, you're an awful parent; you've done all these things.' I listen to them, sympathetically, because I'm a parent and I say to them, 'All of us are trying to do the best thing for your kid.'''

Courter is clearly proud of the successes she's had, especially the case in which she arranged for a family to adopt three teenage sisters who had been living under three separate roofs. In that case, she orchestrated the termination of the parents' ''primary'' rights but maintained their ''secondary'' rights, which allowed them continued contact. She advocates more such arrangements in custody battles.

Courter says that, ultimately, though, she does the guardian work for herself.

''My husband has a theory,'' she says, ''that when you're thinking about other people all the time and trying to do the best for them, you don't really dwell on the hangnails of life.''

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