SPARTANBURG -- It was the second time Charles Taylor had been placed in foster care. This time, he was separated from his brother.
Only 11 years old, his life uprooted, Taylor said he had nobody. Then he met Spartanburg County guardian ad litem L.H. Buff.
"He was a friend, and sometimes that's all a kid needs, just a friend to talk to," Taylor said.
Volunteer guardians ad litem "represent and advocate for the best interests of children in family court proceedings involving allegations of abuse or neglect," according to the South Carolina Volunteer Guardian Ad Litem Program.
Jean Bradley is coordinator of the 7th Judicial Circuit's Guardian Ad Litem Program. Her office oversees Spartanburg and Cherokee counties. She said they have just over 200 cases involving about 500 children.
Last year, volunteers advocated for 609 abused and neglected children in Spartanburg County. Eighty-eight were turned away because there were not enough trained volunteers.
In the past, if a volunteer or case manager was not available to serve as a child's guardian, an attorney was appointed. Not any longer.
Bradley said her office will have to assign a volunteer or case manager to all cases. Attorneys no longer are appointed as guardians ad litem in family court proceedings. That ruling from the S.C. Supreme Court went into effect July 1.
Bradley said they have about 65 to 70 active volunteer guardians in Spartanburg County and 25 in Cherokee County. More volunteers are needed.
How to help
Volunteers must be at least 21 and able to pass criminal background and reference checks. They have to complete a free, 30-hour training program and at least two hours of observation in court.
Volunteers should have six to eight hours per month to devote to a case. The amount of time one spends on a case varies, Bradley said.
The first 30 to 35 days, when the volunteer is investigating and conducting interviews, are the most time-consuming, she said.
Bradley said most volunteers work full time.
They are asked to visit the child they represent at least once a month.
Often, a volunteer is the only consistent person in a child's life, Bradley said.
Taylor and Buff
While case workers and living arrangements frequently changed, Taylor said Buff was probably the only person who was around the entire time.
Growing up in the system, Taylor said he met a lot of people whose job it was to care. Buff, he said, was different.
He talked to the youngster and encouraged him to work hard in school.
Taylor is unsure where he would be today without Buff's positive influence.
Taylor is now a young man who has "aged out" of the system.
Buff, a guardian ad litem since 2001, also served as a guardian for Taylor's siblings.
Penni Kucaba has been a volunteer guardian ad litem about four years and has helped dozens of children.
She said it's a challenge to work through the system as a team. Case workers, she said, change. Children might be moved from home to home. And communication can get "fractured."
Yet it's an undertaking that comes with rewards.
"It's frustrating. It's sad sometimes. But it's rewarding. I can't begin to tell you how rewarding it is," Bradley said.
"People tell us all the time, 'I don't know how you do this. You know, I couldn't deal with this.' When you look at a situation like Charlie and see what L.H. has meant to him, it makes it all worthwhile."