Children can end up caught in a legal tug-of-war between parents, other relatives, state social workers, foster parents and lawyers.
That's where Sue Northcraft, Cynthia Gove and more than 200 other volunteers come in.
"The one thing I have found and I truly believe is that there is a home for every child," Gove said.
Gove has been a Snohomish County volunteer guardian ad litem for eight years. During that time the court has appointed her to dozens of dependency cases in which children are under the care of the state after being removed from their parents.
Volunteer guardians ad litem, or VGALs, are asked to be the voice for young people as the legal system wrangles over whether they should return to their parents or whether they need a new home.
The volunteers are asked to be detectives, seeking out answers about a child's schooling, health and safety. They often are the squeaky wheels, pestering social workers to get children the services they need. Sometimes they are tattletales, reporting to judges when parents aren't showing up for visitations or meeting their court-ordered obligations.
Above all, they are asked to be the advocates for children.
The volunteers add "color to all the black and white paperwork that the judge is looking at," said Jessica Gurley, the community services supervisor for Snohomish County Superior Court.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson said the volunteers provide a valuable perspective when he's trying to decide what's best for children. He said it is clear to him from the volunteers' reports that they understand the impact they can have.
Northcraft, who has volunteered for a dozen years, said she may be the only constant for some children who have been placed in different foster homes and assigned numerous social workers. She said she must be diligent and objective.
The volunteer program has been around since 1979. The county's Superior Court was the second in the nation to begin assigning volunteers to dependency cases. The first program began in King County.
In Snohomish County, volunteers must pass a background check, attend 30 hours of extensive training and have about 20 hours a month to dedicate to their cases. The program always is need of more volunteers, Gurley said.
Volunteers are supported by eight paid program coordinators. The guardians ad litem must attend court hearings, regularly visit children outside of the courtroom and write reports about their findings for the judges. They are asked for recommendations and are expected to be able to support their suggestions with the facts they have gathered through interviews, research and reviewing medical, school and other records.
A volunteer guardian ad litem needs common sense, Gurley said.
Being good under pressure is a plus.
Because there aren't enough volunteers to staff every dependency case, the VGALs often are assigned the most difficult cases, particularly those that appear headed toward a parent's rights being terminated.
That often puts them in contact with people who don't want to talk to them or cooperate.
"It can be difficult. You know a parent loves that child, but you also know there's no way that parent can be a parent," Northcraft said.
Northcraft said volunteers must keep their focus on what's best for a child.
"It gives me great hope that there are people in the community willing to do what they can to make sure kids are safe," Wilson said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Snohomish County volunteer guardians ad litem are allowed to use pseudonyms to protect their safety and security.
These pseudonyms are used in court documents and hearings before judges. The volunteers in the story are identified by their pseudonyms.
For more information about the Snohomish County Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program, call 425-388-7854.
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