PICKENS COUNTY – Despite some different approaches to what they do Guardians ad Litem John Garrett and Sheila Barton have a passion for helping children.
They wish more people would get involved to see the good that can come out of disturbing child neglect and abuse cases.
Garrett and Barton have both operated out of the Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Program, Pickens County office for more than six years handling more than 30 cases on a volunteer basis. The overall program statewide is a division of the South Carolina Governor’s Office.
“You speak for the child,” Garrett said, describing the basic function of the Guardian ad Litem. In a court setting, “You become their (the court’s) eyes and ears.”
Guardians represent the child and help explain the situation of the child during court hearings over their custody in regard to protective orders the court has issued in cases of abuse and neglect.
That requires the guardian to visit the child to whom they are assigned on a regular basis and carry out other forms of investigation, coming to understand what the child been through, the causes behind the claim of abuse or neglect and proposing possible solutions.
“Ultimately the goal is to get the child back with the parents if at all possible,” Garrett said.
“Sometimes that is not possible and the child can either be taken in by another family member in a safe situation or is ultimately adopted. The goal is to get them back with their parents, however,” he said.
Frequently the solution involves a parent going through some form of treatment for substance abuse or parenting classes for a period of time.
“I follow that progress also and report to the court,” Garrett said. He also works with parents that he runs across during the course of the meetings with children, helping identify resources for their assistance. He is soft-spoken and laid-back in demeanor
Despite being a grandmother Barton, a downtown Pickens business owner, takes a different tack.
“I tell them (parents) that I am not there for them. I am there for that child,” she said.
It has a confrontational air to it, and the child’s parent is likely to feel Barton’s fiery glare.
“I will stop at nothing to find out the situation, talking to anyone, police records, medical records. If I have access to it, I will use it.” Barton said. “Guardian is a good term for this this job. I am a guardian for that child.”
Ultimately Barton says her goal is to get the child back with parents if that is possible and safe.
And the Guardian ad Litem Office supports those different approaches. Different people respond to different approaches said Brigitte Stephens of the office.
Both Garrett and Barton agree that consistency from the guardian ad litem is of high importance to the child.
“I’ve had cases in which the DSS case worker and sometimes the foster parents changed several times,” Garrett said. “They (the child) sees that. They appreciate when an adult does what they say they are going to do. They don’t see a lot of that in some cases.”
The process comes under court review periodically. Frequently that means following the child for at least six months with at least monthly visits.
The court takes testimony from parents, Department of Social Services and the guardian ad litem before making a decision about custody of the child. “We all have lawyers,” Garrett said.
The guardian will follow the child for a time after placement as the child’s representative in court.
The pay off in the end can be dramatic. Both Garrett and Barton have seen successes along with failures.
“There was one family that came to my business recently and thanked me. There was a time, I know, those parents could have killed me, but they came and thanked me and the children are doing well.
Both Garrett and Barton promoted the program hoping others will join the effort to protect children.
“I wish people would stop trying to change the whole world and realize they can help save one child at a time,” Garrett said.