'The Voice of the Children'

Guardian ad Litem Todd Schoonover has served children in southeast Minnesota for 17 years.  “I wish people understood that we’re not here to destroy families.  All we’re here to do is protect children.”
Guardian ad Litem Todd Schoonover has served children in southeast Minnesota for 17 years. “I wish people understood that we’re not here to destroy families. All we’re here to do is protect children.”

A young boy was found one day in his grade school bathroom, licking the toilet.

His parents had been chaining the boy and his brother to their beds every night, in their own feces, and weren’t feeding them. The boy was trying to get nutrition from the salt in the toilet.

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When the judge later terminated parental rights, the boys asked their Guardian ad Litem Todd Schoonover if they could come to court. Why?  He asked.  So they could thank the judge.

Guardians ad Litem, or GALs, are advocates for abused or neglected kids. There are more than 200 GALs in Minnesota who work alongside judges, child protection social workers, county attorneys and public defenders, but they’re independent. Their job is to make sure that what happens in court is in a child’s best interest.

“Court is a scary place that kids don’t belong in so I speak for them,” says Schoonover, an AFSCME Local 3688 member who represents children in southeast Minnesota.

“Social workers have to work at getting families back together. I don’t. I am the eyes and ears of the judge and the voice of the children.

“I wish people understood that we’re not here to destroy families,” he adds. “All we’re here to do is protect children.”

Guardians visit children at least monthly.  They observe kids in foster homes and on supervised visits with parents. They make sure children are getting needed therapy and medical appointments and that parents are meeting requirements such as attending parenting classes, treatment or Alcoholics Anonymous. They can talk to teachers and counselors and visit schools.

They recommend to the judge what’s best for a child based on all the information they’ve gathered, even when it’s not popular with the kid or the parents.

“The best part of my job is seeing children return to a safe loving home, either back with their parents or doing an adoption, a permanent home of some type,” Schoonover says. “That thrills me, to see a parent pull it together.  When kids are out there and lost, you feel like you’ve done something for them.

Guardians see kids living in conditions that are nearly unspeakable. After 30 years on the job, northwest Minnesota GAL Tim Arneson still finds the level of suffering unbelievable.

“We go into homes, dirty homes where there are cat and dog feces all over the floor, in the bed, on the kitchen table,” Arneson says. “We go into homes infested with lice; we go into homes infested with bed bugs.

“I recently was in a home where I told the court I wouldn’t go back. In two minutes, I was there long enough to see a 2-year-old kid happy as a lark and breathing deep. I came out and my lungs burned all night long and my eyes watered. It was a meth house.”

Drug and alcohol addiction are constant problems made worse by the rising use of heroin and other opioids. Add to that the increasing number of cases. A series of state reforms have led to more child abuse and neglect reports, which directly increase the GAL caseload. nb

Guardians ad Litem Todd Schoonover (left) and Erik Brekke chat about election procedure before taking contract ballots on the road to voting sites. GALs speak for children in court proceedings.
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While lawmakers approved more funding for child protection workers to help with the reforms – though far short of what was needed – they didn’t provide additional funding for the rest of the system: the GALs, public defenders, county attorneys, service providers and judges who serve abused and neglected kids.

“What it’s done is overloaded the system,” says Schoonover. GAL caseloads are up as much as 60 percent in some districts. “We have way more cases and kids than we can service properly. It’s concerning.”

In the Ninth Judicial District, Arneson currently handles more than 43 cases with nearly 100 kids. GALs in his district are so overloaded, they had to stop handling family court cases, orders for protection or truancies. That’s troubling because truancies can signal a bigger problem in a family, and catching kids early can help prevent greater trauma, he says.

In the Third Judicial District, Schoonover says they’ve stopped taking on the “fringe” cases.

“The kids I work with now are much more damaged, the families are much more damaged, and we have much bigger problems,” he says. “Human Services in southern Minnesota only has so much funding. They just take care of the worst of the worst.”

In Hennepin County, Guardian ad Litem Nancy Lange has 42 cases compared to the recommended caseload of 30. In January, the Fourth District had 527 unassigned cases, the National Center for State Courts reports; that number was still at 264 in July.

“We have such an incredibly high backlog,” says Lange, who clarified she was sharing her opinion and not necessarily that of the program or office. “We may have cases that aren’t assigned a guardian for some time. It’s embarrassing how long in some cases – months if it’s not high risk. It’s not because it’s the way we’d prefer it. It’s because of the sad fact there aren’t enough guardians.”

Add crazy hours to the growing stack of challenges that GALs face.

“It’s not an 8 to 5 job,” Lange explains. “Today I had a meeting in North Branch at 9, which meant I had to leave at 8, then I had a hospital visit with a kid at 11, then I have a family conference from 5 to 8. You just need to be flexible in how you arrange your time.”

Being a Guardian ad Litem is emotionally draining as you’d imagine. “The secondary stress and trauma, that’s as true for guardians as it is for social workers,” Lange says. “We see the same things. You get really invested in these kids.”

What makes a tough job even tougher is that all too often, Guardians ad Litem don’t get the respect they deserve. They’ve been threatened by parents, had tires slashed, been screamed at in courthouse hallways and needed deputy sheriffs to escort them safely outside.

On top of that, the Legislature has been stingy with funding. Some legislators don’t understand what they do: They don’t know the difference between GALs and child protection workers or mistakenly think Guardians tear apart families.

“Every one of us is dedicated to looking out for, advocating for the best interests of children,” Schoonover says. “We’re doing it because we really care about kids. All guardians want is somebody to respect them for what they’re doing: If they’re respecting us, they’re listening to us so we can do our job and speak for kids.”

What keeps them going despite all the challenges is knowing they’re helping kids.

Schoonover recalls a case with a mom and dad with such severe meth problems, they were arrested driving down the interstate in two separate cars, waving guns at each other – with the kids in the cars.

“I sat them down in a room. I told them, you guys have a long way to go if you want your kids back. You’ve got drug issues, you’ve got violence issues. These kids need you.

“The dad looked and me and said, ‘You know, I hear you, we’re scared.  We’re going to pull our lives together.’ And they did. He graduated, went to tech school, all their kids are back. At the last hearing, I said, ‘Your honor, I had no faith in these people whatever. Thank God they proved me wrong.’”

“You’re working with the kids that need help the most, the kids that are in the danger of not surviving, the kids who are in survival mode,” Arneson says. “You’re working with that part of society that people hear about but don’t really see.

“Sometimes it’s just enough to help them survive until they’re adults,” he says. “But the impact we have on kids’ lives may be monumental.”

Published July 18, 2017