BOISE - Each year, hundreds of Idaho children are brought into the state's child protection system, often because of abuse, neglect or other problems in the home - such as illicit drug use.
It's a journey filled with uncertainty, and hours of civil court proceedings in which a judge ultimately decides where the child will stay.
"We are deciding as a system whether parents get to get their children back, or whether parents cannot have their children back, and the children are made free for adoption," said Ada County Magistrate Judge Andrew Ellis.
But who speaks for the child in that system?
It could be you.
"A volunteer guardian ad litem will represent a child's best interests in court when they've been removed from a home due to abuse, neglect and abandonment," explained Jaime Hansen, executive director of Family Advocates, a nonprofit that provides training to potential guardians ad litem.
That's the letter the law in Idaho. In layman's terms, a guardian ad litem is the voice of a child in the court system.
"We investigate things to make sure it's what the children need. There's a big need. A lot of kids out there don't get services that they need; they're not in the right placement," Tressa Van Nest said. "We write reports, and the judge reads those."
Van Nest has volunteered as a guardian ad litem for more than a year in Elmore County.
"There's only three guardians out there," she said. "Two live in Mountain Home, and of course I drive from Kuna."
It's a journey - and a year-long commitment - that Van Nest says is worth every mile, and means a lot to the children she helps.
"If they need something in school, services in school, mental health services, going to a doctor, these are just things you can do for kids that really need the help," she explained.
"They don't have a lot," she said of the kids in the system. "They just pack up a bag and go. You never know, one day they're in one foster home, the next day they're gone. We can be that one stable thing in their life."
Van Nest recently renewed her commitment to be a voice for children who desperately need one.
"It's about the child, it's not about the parents," she said. "It's not about the state, it's not about the health and welfare. It's about the child and what they need."
Judge Ellis says guardians are an integral part of the process that decides a child's future.
"They are our eyes and ears, and it's very important that we have a neutral third party who goes out into the community and gets to know these children, gets to know their counselors, gets to know their teachers, gets to know their parents, gets to know everyone that surrounds these children, and is able to come back and report to the court what's going on in these children's lives," he said.
But right now, the number of people stepping up to be those "eyes and ears" isn't keeping up with the need.
Hansen, the executive director of Family Advocates, says that last year in Ada County alone, 633 children under age 12 were removed from their homes, and entered the child protection system.
"Unfortunately, because we didn't have enough volunteer guardians ad litem, we were only able to serve about 70 to 80 percent of those kids," she said. "That's heartbreaking."
The immediate goal: 73 more volunteers by the end of this year.
You don't need any specific degree or professional experience. Potential volunteers receive 30 hours of pre-service training, and shadow a guardian ad litem in the courtroom.
"You can make an informed decision before the judge swears you in and you take an active case," Hansen said.
And you won't be alone.
"Our staff, their one job, is to make sure that you are supported throughout your journey with your child or your children on your case," she said.
The work is not easy. In fact, it can be heartbreaking.
"They are going to deal with children who are damaged, children who are traumatized, children who've seen and heard a lot," Judge Ellis said.
But it can also be rewarding.
"It's very rewarding when you walk into a home, and a foster child just grabs you and is, like, 'there you are! I've missed you,'" Van Nest said.
And it's important.
"Your job, in addition to doing the job for me, is to share with your friends and family about this system, about the kind of issues that are facing our community," Ellis said. "Because these kids... are going to be a part of our community, and unless we support them and help them and let the community at large know that there is a need, then this is an invisible problem, and these kids essentially get forgotten."
If you are interested in learning more about becoming a guardian ad litem, you can get in touch with Family Advocates by clicking here. To volunteer in Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties, contact 3rd District Guardian.
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