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WATAUGA — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Watauga County Guardians ad Litem didn’t stop advocating for the needs of children who were abused or neglected. Instead, they implemented changes at “warp speed” to meet the needs of children and volunteers, said Program Supervisor for GAL Valerie Daniels.

The Watauga County Guardian ad Litem program is part of a statewide initiative that provides a volunteer to any minor going through the foster care system to be their voice in court situations.

“It’s difficult to remember all of the changes we have implemented,” Daniels said. “We have implemented those changes that had the potential to impact the health, safety and well-being of our GAL Volunteer advocates at warp speed — changing up our practices sometimes daily — as we, like all other agencies, navigated the uncertainty of this health emergency.”

Almost every aspect of the GAL program had to shift with meetings, non-emergency court hearings, 30 hours of training for volunteers, and virtual meetings with children and family all online.

One of the biggest challenges of working mostly virtual is interacting with the children GAL volunteers help.

“It’s harder,” Daniels said. “It’s different when they’re not there in person, when you can see their body mannerisms and the way that they respond to your questions. I guess it’s easier for them to maybe not answer the question fully if they are on a video feed.”

Daniels said sometimes the children will have sporadic connectivity issues to the internet which can make some of the meetings choppy. When that happens, they’ll ask the child to log off and log back on, or everyone turns off their video feed briefly to try and boost the connectivity.

Daniels is the coordinator for the GAL program in Avery, Watauga, Yancy, Mitchell and Madison counties. She said the organization is serving around 150 children in Watauga and Avery counties combined.

Tamara Lakey, the district administrator of the 23rd district — which includes Ashe County — has also had to adjust by offering more services virtually. She said in December, the organization served 51 children in Ashe County.

Lakey said GAL program in her district has not really lost any volunteers as they have adapted, but they could always use more.

“We’re not recruiting as many because we’re not able to go out and do events in person because of course you can’t do that,” Lakey said. “(The pandemic) has hurt us being able to recruit more volunteers but we have not lost volunteers. So that’s a great thing.”

Initially the GAL program saw a decrease in the number of juvenile cases going before the court, but Daniels said the organization is now seeing an increase.

Challenges some children face because of the pandemic have caused the volunteers “eyes to leak,” Daniels said.

Some new challenges children have faced because of the pandemic are the loss of a foster home placement because foster parents can’t “realistically balance all of the school schedule changes and still maintain their job,” Daniels said.

She added that group homes have also had to quarantine multiple times which have caused children to lose out on “ in-person visits with their parents and family members.” Children in the program have also tested positive for COVID-19.

For Lakey, the biggest effect of the pandemic loss of face-to-face time with the children.

“The probably the most impacting of this would be that our advocates that we work with are not able to just at random, go and be able to visit,” Lakey said. “It’s harder to have that relationship with a child. That’s the biggest piece — really getting to know the children and other people.”

Court cases have also lasted a little bit longer, Daniels said, because of COVID-19.

“Even though we, like most agencies, are beginning to experience some COVID-19 fatigue, we remain committed to our mission of helping abused, neglected and dependent children in our state’s court system achieve the best possible outcomes,” Daniels said.

The GAL Program has seen an increase in interest from people requesting information on the program, but Daniels said it’s hard to estimate how many volunteers they currently have.

“We’re always in need of volunteers,” Daniels said.

The next scheduled fully online pre-service training for GAL Volunteer Advocates is tentatively scheduled to begin around Feb. 15, Daniels said.

More information can be found at www.volunteerforgal.org or people can email Valerie.R.Daniels@nccourts.org for Watauga County, or gal.district23@nccourts.org for Ashe County.

“We remain committed to try to fulfill our mission during this time,” Daniels said. “We want to see children reach permanency in the best possible home or have the best possible outcome in the shortest amount of time.”

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