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Wilmington-area Guardian ad Litem program preps for loss of supervisor position, state and federal help hopefully on the way

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Rachel Keith
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WHQR News
Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening said the Guardian ad Litem program needs to be funded appropriately and expanded.

The Guardian ad Litem program is faced with losing a supervisor position due to a major deficit in a federal grant program. Though a federal bill was passed last week to rebuild the fund, and the gap in funding could be covered in the state budget in the meantime, local officials have been preparing for the loss.

*Editor's Note: On Friday, July 30th, Linda Bialaszewski, Guardian ad Litem District Administrator for the Fifth Judicial District, was informed that her office would lose the VOCA position with the next grant cycle beginning October 1st, 2021. She said in an email to WHQR, "Our hope now is the additional requested supervisor position will be added to the state budget."

Congress established the 1984 Victims of Crime Act or VOCA to channel funds from criminal prosecution fees paid to the court system. The funds were then channeled to bolster victim advocate programs. The Guardian ad Litem program (GAL) is one of the initiatives that receive financial support.

What the GAL program does

Guardians, mainly volunteers, advocate for children during court proceedings when they've been removed from the home because of parental or guardian substance abuse, serious mental health issues, or domestic violence. They get support from professional staff, including professional supervisors skilled at court procedure and legal requirements. Support staff also recruit, screen, and train guardians.

Linda Białaszewski has been the district administrator for New Hanover and Pender counties for about 5 years, and she was a GAL program supervisor for close to 15 years. She said it would be detrimental to the program if they lose a supervisory position.

“Each of those supervisors carries a caseload of 85 to 100 or so children and supervises 30 to 35 volunteers,” said Bialaszewski, “and so with that loss, our supervisors then will take on those cases and children and the volunteers and be overworked, for lack of a better term.”

According to the Cape Fear Guardian ad Litem Association, a non-profit organization that seeks to support the efforts of the District 5 Office, reported that “each year about 400 children in New Hanover and Pender counties are adjudicated as victims of abuse and neglect.”

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Rachel Keith
District 5 Guardian ad Litem Office in downtown Wilmington

Bialaszewski said the 150 volunteer guardians have serious responsibilities in the court system.

“They're talking with teachers, counselors, and everybody who really is involved with the life of the child, they're pulling all that together,” said Bialaszewski. “And writing in a court report can sound intimidating, but we train people. And that's part of what the supervisors do as well.”

Kate Meyer has served as a Guardian ad Litem for three years. She said she couldn’t do her job without the supervisors.

“The judge needs to have clear concise information to make pretty much life alternating decisions,” said Meyer. “And without that guidance from my supervisor, and the staff, I would be just drowning in a sea of legalese; their positions are so vital.”

Positions that depend on federal funding

One of the four supervisory positions in New Hanover and Pender counties, funded by the VOCA grant, is at risk of being cut due to the lack of funds. The other three positions are more or less permanent because they're funded by the state, said Bialaszewski.

According to the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem Office, across the state, VOCA funds 35 volunteer supervisor positions. Officials with the state program were anticipating a 70% reduction on September 30th.

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North Carolina Guardian ad Litem
Guardian ad Litem VOCA Grant-Funded Position Locations

Graham Wilson, the communications director for the North Carolina Judicial Branch, provided the tentative VOCA grant funding allocations to GAL for 2021-2023: “$2,282,152.67 in federal dollars is approximately 39% of [the] current award, $5,786,284.52 in federal dollars, which will end September 30, 2021.”

Białaszewski translated this as “What we’ve learned from the state Guardian ad Litem Office is that the VOCA grant that used to fund about 41, I think positions, is now only going to fund 13 [throughout the state].

Though H.R. 1652 or what’s known as the VOCA Fix Act passed in Congress and was signed by President Joe Biden last week, it's likely going to take time to recoup those funds.

Biden said at the signing of the bill on July 22nd, 2021, “Between 2017 and today, the amount of money in these funds has gone down 92 percent, which has resulted in a 70 percent reduction in victims assistance programs and grants. This means that, for a lot of victims, the help they need isn’t there any longer.”

The new bill allows for white-collar criminal fees, often settled out of court, to boost the fund. According to a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, white-collar crimes increased 47% within the past 24 months. That would allow for continued expansion and added protections for victims and programs like the Guardian ad Litem.

In an email to WHQR, Graham Wilson, the communications director for the North Carolina Judicial Branch, said they haven’t received details from the federal government yet on what the VOCA Fix Act means for the state and its VOCA grant-funded supervisor positions.

But the 2022 North Carolina state budget, which is still being negotiated, could temporarily fund the state supervisor positions.

“The hope, again, is that rests somewhat with the state budget, that there had been a request from the judicial branch, that there be 40 additional positions added to the state budget. So these are expansion funds. 20 the first year, and 20 the second year of the state budget. So that is a plus as a potential that those 20 positions get added for this fiscal year,” said Bialaszewski.

While they wait, local officials have prepared for the loss of the VOCA-grant supervisor.

More important than ever

Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening, who’s been a district court judge for close to 30-years — and hears all the juvenile justice and cases in New Hanover County, weighed in on what would happen if the support staff were to be cut.

“So if supervisors have too many cases, then they're not able to appropriately supervise guardians, which means the work product that comes to me is not necessarily the best it could be. And because of their unique role in our court system, it is critical that that voice be as strong as possible, every single day," he said.

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Rachel Keith
District 5 Guardian ad Litem Office.

Judge Corpening said this program should continue to expand: “Instead of facing cuts, to grow it, really we need to be having the conversation not about saving positions, but about growing positions to make us even more effective.”

He believes the work of his team has serious implications in the life of children.

“Whether it's a parent overdosing in front of a child, maybe being brought back by Narcan, maybe not; parents with profound mental health issues that need us to be able to help them connect, to get it right, so the family can come back together again. We have to be able to get these cases right. And we need all hands on deck,” said Corpening.

Corpening said it's the goal of the program to eventually reunite kids with their families. But it’s only about 55% of the time the court can do this within a year of the incident. In the second year, Corpening said, the rate of reunification is higher.

Guardian ad Litem Kate Meyer agreed with Corpening, that the parents or guardians have a lot to prove in order to be reunited with their children.

“It can be very difficult for them because of their circumstances because they're required by the court — if illegal substances is a concern, then they must go get drug tested on demand pretty much, find housing, find and maintain employment, attend parenting classes, go for complete clinical assessment, so there's a lot that they need to do,” said Meyer.

And the child welfare cases, according to Judge Corpening, are ticking back up.

“But what we do have now is a rising caseload because of the drop in reports that are now increasing, it started as soon as school started coming back in person. As soon as doctors' offices started seeing kids, as soon as daycares opened, we started having an increase in reports,” said Corpening.

Białaszewski agreed that they need to retain these supervisor positions because she, too, has seen an increase in cases, one of the main contributors being the pandemic: “The pressures in the home are going to be enhanced, and I do see the potential is there, the numbers are starting to tick back up just a bit.”

She said she’s still looking for new volunteers to add to the already “devoted volunteers" she has.

"And it just warms my heart when I think of the work they do and the impact they have. Even just being there for a child, listening to them, makes a huge difference,” said Białaszewski.

Click here to become a Guardian ad Litem for District 5.