The guardians

Lois Richter, circuit coordinator for the Guardian ad Litem Program in Charleston and Berkeley counties, conducts a training class for volunteers at her office on King Street.

The choice has come down to recommending that a child return to an inner-city apartment and a struggling alcoholic mother just released from another rehab program or remain with female foster parents who have tutored a poor student into a happy academic star with lots of friends in his new suburban neighborhood.

The case remains unresolved and, like many volunteer guardian ad litem cases, it might not reach a conclusion for years.

Volunteer guardians ad litem are assigned by states or counties to represent the "best interest" of a child or children in cases of alleged abuse or neglect brought to Family Court by the state Department of Social Services. They are paid nothing but have broad influence on judges. At one guardian's suggestion a judge ordered a father suspected of fondling young girls to undergo analysis including the attachment of a remarkably effective device used to measure sexual preferences.

One Charleston County guardian ad litem recently was introduced to her assigned child -- at a morgue.

Another case involved an alleged prostitute seeking another shot at custodial motherhood after several failed attempts.

Interested?

Classes start soon.

S.C. Guardian ad Litem offices in each county are in need of helpers to serve as court-appointed advocates in the wake of a S.C. Supreme Court ruling last year making the program all-volunteer beginning in July. Previously, attorneys were appointed to pick up the slack when there was a shortage of volunteers, which was often.

"This has always been our goal, to take every case. We are not opposed to this mandate at all," said Lois Richter, the S.C. Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Circuit Coordinator for Charleston and Berkeley counties.

"However, because we've never had enough volunteers, we always had to send some cases over to attorneys," Richter said. "Now, if there is a shortage, my case-management staff will serve as GALs. They are the best GALs around, but if they have to take cases, that means they are not going to be here for case management. Ultimately, the children pay a price for that. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out how to put more hours in a day."

Within South Carolina's Guardian ad Litem Program, volunteers must complete 30 hours of training plus court-observation time. Volunteer guardians ad litem, unlike paid guardians whose work typically includes Family Court custody cases, receive no compensation -- except a license to cry, or celebrate placing a kid in a better situation.

"For me, it's my passion," said veteran Charleston County guardian ad litem Georgia Ann Porcher, 68. "I feel like I'm finally able to do what I want to do."

Dave Mann, owner of Professional Marketing Associates, has juggled as many as five Charleston County cases at a time.

What's the best tip for someone interested in volunteering?

"Contact somebody who is currently doing it and ask a lot of questions," said Mann, 67.

A guardian ad litem usually will spend about 10 hours a month investigating a case brought forth by the Department of Social Services. The work includes interviews with children, teachers and/or day care workers, relatives, DSS case workers and the alleged perpetrator before filing a court report and representing the child in Family Court.

"I try to match a case with a person based on their preferences and what type of case we think they would be comfortable taking," Charleston County Guardian Ad Litem Case Manager Rachel Fitzpatrick said. "As long as they have a compassion for children, we can teach them the rest."

The stated goal of the S.C. Guardian ad Litem Program (www.oepp.sc.gov/gal) is to "provide a volunteer advocate for every child who is the subject of an abuse and neglect proceeding."

Richter has 150 active cases involving 275 children. She has 166 guardians ad litem but needs more, believing a rugged economy creates hardships leading to "self-medication" and other frequent themes of neglect and abuse.

Richter's guardians range from recent college graduates and law students to retirees.

"People are signing up for my June class," Richter said. "I am the eternal optimist, probably ridiculously so. We are going to do it. It's not a question of 'Can I do it?' I've been told I will do it."

Richter said she sees no negatives in the S.C. Supreme Court ruling removing attorneys from the guardian ad litem system.

"Because my guardians are well-trained and well-supervised, I think they do an excellent job representing children," Richter said. "Attorneys operate under a different mandate."

John R. Ungaro III agrees.

"I really think the new ruling is all pro, no cons," said Ungaro, dean of the Trident Technical College Division of Law-Related Studies and an attorney with Papa, Ungaro and Falkiewicz who has served as an appointed guardian ad litem. "I'm not saying appointed attorneys don't do their best; some do. And some don't because some are offended by having to do these cases involving virtually no compensation. Attorneys are extremely busy and these (guardian) cases can go on the 'backest' back burner. Volunteers, on the other hand, have to be motivated and they will give these cases the time they deserve."

The duty can be "dirty and depressing," Ungaro said.

"But, frankly," he said, "I don't think I called on my lawyer skills to do what I had to do."

Porcher, a retired teacher and retail executive, has three children with husband, Philip, also a guardian ad litem. But the pictures on her refrigerator are of kids she has represented in court, kids she keeps up with long beyond obligation.

"Of course, the abuse cases stick with you," Porcher said, "and cases involving the termination of parental rights."

Ungaro's advice for a would-be volunteer guardian comes from experience, much of it unpleasant.

"You have to have a thick skin," he said. "You must have an open mind because things are not always as they initially seem. And you cannot be bullied into a decision when it comes to what's best for a child."

Guardian ad Litem 101

Volunteer guardians ad litem are known in some states as court-appointed special advocates. By any title, the volunteers represent the best interest of children who are taken into Department of Social Services custody for reasons of alleged abuse or neglect.

The four primary roles of a volunteer guardian ad litem are investigation, facilitation (finding resources to help fill a child's needs), advocacy (court recommendations) and monitoring.

--Ad litem definition: For the suit, for the court case.

--Birthplace of the concept: The 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act mandated the appointment of a guardian ad litem in child abuse and neglect cases, taking away a judge's discretion. King County, Wash., in 1977 initiated a program of community volunteer guardians ad litem.

--First year of the volunteer guardian ad litem program in South Carolina: 1984.

--Lowcountry treatment options for children and their parents or guardians: A guardian ad litem may ask a judge to mandate treatment at one or more of 30 facilities.

--Representation for the advocate: A guardian ad litem is represented in court by a S.C. Volunteer Guardian ad Litem staff attorney.

--Violence?: Lois Richter, the Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Circuit Coordinator for Charleston and Berkeley counties, said she knows of no cases recently in which a Charleston County guardian ad litem has been attacked or harmed by an alleged perpetrator.

--Care vs. anger: "I don't think this kind of work is for everyone," Richter said. "I think it's something we are called to. We want people who are responsible, who care about children and who have the ability to set aside their personal feelings."

Guardians ad litem work with the Department of Social Services but sometimes clash with DSS recommendations: "If we didn't have volunteers who gave of their time and their talents to speak for these children in court, there really would be no independent entity to speak just for the best interest of the children," Richter said. "DSS looks at the entire family. Which is not to say they don't care about children - of course, they do. But DSS is mandated to look at the whole family and guardians are there to be that voice for that child."

Gene Sapakoff has completed Charleston County guardian ad litem training. Reach him at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com.