The Ask a Mentor column is an educational periodical by Dorothy "Dot" Binger published on our blog. Each article provides a mentor's answer to a specific question asked by a volunteer.

This page contains all published Ask a Mentor posts sorted chronologically with the newest at the top.

Ask a Mentor: Interactions with Separated Parents

Volunteer Question

My case involves "Marie" who is 7 years old and "Roger" who is 5 years old. The parents divorced shortly after Roger was born. For some reason, the mother went north a couple of years ago and the children went to live with their father.

This case started when the children were removed from the father because of neglect. According to the shelter petition, they were often left at home alone for extended periods of time. The mother returned to Tallahassee when this happened and the children were placed with her. Mother and children live with the maternal grandmother, which is where I visit the children. The mother has obtained employment here and plans to stay and keep the children with her. Neither child is doing very well in school at this point.

The children often spend the weekend with their dad. They talk about him a lot and seem very bonded to him. I checked with the dependency case manager (DCM) who told me that dad quickly complied with almost everything in his case plan and has now been given unsupervised visitation. I've spoken to the dad on the phone one time. We have not had a court hearing since I have had the case; so I haven't seen him.

Since the mother plans to keep the children now, what further involvement do I need to have with the father?

Mentor Answer

There are several reasons that I would want to know a great deal more about the father and his relationship with Marie and Roger. A face to face interview with him could give you a good idea of what it was like for the children to live with their dad these last two years.

Was there a lack of mental stimulation and varied experiences that now causes them to lag in school? Were there no pre-school experiences? You can find out a lot by listening to him talk about the children—did he really get to know them? What was in the relationship which continues to make the children bonded to him?

Those two years have had a big impact on the children and what their current needs are. Since they spend many weekends with him, you certainly want to feel assured that they are safe when they are with him. Furthermore, does he plan activities with them that can improve their school performance? Does he read with them and so forth? Be sure to make some of your child visits when the children are with him for the weekend to observe firsthand the relationship.

Keep in mind that since he had custody the two years prior to shelter, he might decide to ask for the children to be returned to him when he fully complies with the case plan. At this point, you cannot be sure who the primary caregiver parent is going to be. Know as much as possible about both of the parents as you continue to advocate for best interest of Marie and Roger.

Ask a Mentor: Getting Clear Information

Volunteer Question

In my case with "Susie," the mother often tells the dependency case manager (DCM) one thing and me another. This has happened at least three times.

She told me one afternoon that she needs a car seat and the very next day she told the DCM that her sister had loaned her one before the child was removed; so she is okay. That's one illustration.

Now I'm not sure what to believe the mother is telling me—either about what she needs or how things are progressing now that Susie, age three, is back in the home.

Mentor Answer

I'm sure this makes you uneasy. However, it probably won't help to confront the mother with this problem. Just ask questions which pinpoint or clarify what she is telling you.

For example, you could ask, "I want to be clear about this. Are you saying that you have no car seat for Susie at all and, therefore, cannot drive her anywhere?" She might then respond something like this, "I don't have one that I own and can keep for Susie. Right now I am using one my sister loaned me."

Some people just can't seem to provide clear, succinct information but don't really intend to tell you something untrue. But you will need to be persistent about getting clear information when an issue is involved that affects the safety and welfare of Susie.

Continue to be very observant of Susie—how she acts, what she says, how she plays and how she interacts with her mother—to judge whether her mother's reports about Susie are consistent with what you are observing.

If Susie is in daycare, the staff reports will be very useful to you in this regard also. Furthermore, as the mother becomes more comfortable with you and learns to trust you, she may become more straightforward in what she says. It is good that you are staying in contact with the DCM so that you can compare notes.

Ask a Mentor: Allowances and School Supplies

Volunteer Question

My second case involves a 15-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, but they are in separate placements. A grandmother has the little boy, but "Patty" is in foster care. My concern right now is with Patty.

When I visited her this afternoon she told me that she still does not receive her allowance. After I asked her if she knew why, she told me that all she knows is that the foster parents tell her that she does not do her chores properly.

School starts in about a week and Patty said that she needs items which she planned to get with her allowance. I'm not sure whether to talk with the caregivers about this or not.

Mentor Answer

The dependency case manager (DCM) monitors the caregivers' general responsibilities as well as areas covered in the normalcy plan for the teenager. I would talk with the DCM—or send an email with copy to your volunteer supervisor (VS)—to see what the DCM knows about this situation.

There may be two things involved which you will want to check on: (1) is the allowance being withheld as punishment, which is frowned on, and (2) are the expectations for uses of the allowance appropriate. Check also to find out if Patty received the check that is given to foster children in August to buy new school clothes.

If she has some legitimate needs which are not appropriately covered by her allowance or the clothing allotment, talk to your VS to see if the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program's nonprofit, Child Advocates II (CAII), can provide some help.

Patty may misunderstand what is going on, or she could have a justifiable concern that the DCM needs to work on with the foster parent. If issues like this remain unresolved, sometimes they lead to further problems that in turn can disrupt a placement.

With school just starting, stability in placement is very important. So acting on your concern is a good step in your advocacy for Patty.

Ask a Mentor: Guardians and Children in Court

Volunteer Question

I have carefully read the new rules for children in court and I have talked to my volunteer supervisor about my responsibility for determining whether it is in the best interest of a particular child to come to court.

I know that the decision to support a child who does not want to come to court must be made in consultation with the volunteer supervisor and attorney. I also realize that most of the time children will come.

What do you do about staying with the children until their case is called?

Mentor Answer

This requires your good judgment about the circumstances surrounding the case and the circumstances of that particular hearing.

For example, if the children have become comfortable being with you and are not especially close to the transporter who brought them to court, it would probably be wise to stay with the children whether inside or outside the courtroom.

In another situation, the children may be seeing their parents from whom they have been removed and are eager to visit with them until their case is called. If the dependency case manager or caregiver is staying outside to supervise, then you may want to go in the courtroom to monitor progress of the docket. Periodically you could go back outside to let the parties know how things stand.

In still a different situation, your case might involve a teenager who is very comfortable with the transporter and who has not yet become comfortable with you. The wait for the case to be called might work better for the teenager if you stayed only part of the time. If the wait is inside the courtroom, your decision might be different. Variations are extensive and you will have to be ready to adapt.

Remember you can always consult with your volunteer supervisor if you are not sure what is wise. However, you will always want to check to see if the children are present and speak to the parties. There may be questions they have of you—or that you have for them. If someone is missing, then find out the reason why.

In other words, feel comfortable about things before your case is called. If you are uncertain about what to do, a good rule is to opt for staying with the children.

Ask a Mentor: Responsibly Leaving a Case

Volunteer Question

I talked to you about a year ago when I got my first case. Now I'm on my second case involving three children. However, I'll have to give up the case as soon as possible. My husband just found out that he is being transferred to another state and therefore, we will be moving. I remember your saying that you have had several cases you picked up from previous guardians and I'm wondering if you have suggestions. I want to leave the case in a responsible way so the children won't be hurt.

Mentor Answer

First of all, thanks for wanting to make it easier for the next volunteer to continue advocacy for the children! In case you have not already done so, notify your volunteer supervisor you are moving. Then arrange to visit the children so that you can personally tell them that you are leaving and can assure them that the new guardian will also care about them and work for their best interest.

Next, work to make sure your case file is in topnotch shape. Check to see if you have included copies of all emails, your child visit reports, your court reports, school progress reports and up-to-date case notes. These case notes will be invaluable as they will inform the new guardian all you have done on this case. If you don't print all of the documents filed with the court which are scanned to you, the volunteer supervisor can print those for the new guardian and add them to the file. I can't overly stress how valuable it will be to the new GAL to have this complete file!

Then if at all possible, schedule a meeting with your volunteer supervisor and program attorney to brief them on the case. You probably have some observations, opinions, expectations and possibly some worries to share that may not be in your file.

We all appreciate the work you have done to move these children along the road to permanency and for all your service as a guardian ad litem. I hope you will volunteer again after you get moved and settled. Call me if you have other questions and best wishes to you and your family in your new home!

Ask a Mentor: More on Continuing Relationships

Volunteer Question

In your last column you talked about continuing a relationship with the children after the case is closed, and in the discussion you mentioned the goodbye visit. I'm also about to end my first case and have been thinking about what to say in my last official visit. Would you mind talking further about that?

Mentor Answer

So much depends upon the age of the child/children. Much also depends on how long I have had the case and the strength of the relationship I have built with the children. When I arrange the visit time with the caregiver I usually mention that this will be the last visit and that I will talk with the children about it. Most likely the caregiver will say something to the children. If it is a very sensitive situation in which I think the children might be upset, I request the caregiver not to mention anything in advance—or I just don't tell the caregiver this will be my last visit.

Sometimes I take to the children an appropriate card, celebrating the fact that their lives have "settled down" and they are living in a safe, stable home. Depending upon their ages, I remind them of why the judge appointed me to be their special friend. Now that "things" seem to be okay for them the judge needs me to work with some other children who are still having problems. I stress, however, that even though I won't be making regular visits I will always be their friend and they can call me. Should they forget my phone number they can call the Guardian ad Litem office and someone will get in touch with me. I try to end on an upbeat tone such as asking, "what are you looking forward to next week?"

On the way home I find myself reflecting on these children, trying to pinpoint how I made a difference. I ask myself if there were times I would have done something differently. Did I get all of the information I needed and make all of the contacts that were important? And I definitely ask myself what I learned during this case that will help me to improve my advocacy for the children in my next case.

Ask a Mentor: Talking to Caregivers

Volunteer Question

I'm a little uncomfortable making suggestions or giving advice to a caregiver. I've been a volunteer for only a year and since you have been a guardian ad litem for a long time, I thought you would have a better perspective on this. Though I've noticed some things which I wish could be changed to benefit the children, I've been hesitant to say anything. I'm concerned that a really big issue will come up and that I won't feel prepared to talk to the caregiver.

Mentor Answer

This is an area which does take some good judgment on the part of the guardian ad litem. Think of it as bringing up a concern affecting the safety or welfare of the children rather than as giving advice. Judge whether what you observe is something you can overlook, whether it is something you should talk about or whether it is an issue you need to talk about and report. You have a mentor and a volunteer supervisor with whom you can talk to help make decisions about what to do. And sometimes you may want to consult with the dependency case manager if it is related to the case plan. The dependency case manager may need to deal with the issue.

Once I had a case where the caregiver yelled at the children (hers and my child) all the time. I soon learned there was no meanness in her voice and it did not seem to bother the children. I decided to overlook it. In another case, however, I discovered the caregiver was allowing my 9-year-old to ride in the front seat. I did speak to caregiver about that and also reported it to the volunteer supervisor and case manager. If I were to find that a baby in my case was sleeping in the bed with an adult, I would want to speak up about that. These are definite concerns about child safety.

If you feel hesitant to speak to an older caregiver who may have been raising children for a long time, think of ways to bring up an issue without giving advice or being judgmental. For example, with the child riding in the front seat you might say, "for the child's safety, he should be twelve to ride in the front seat. What is your understanding about their riding in the front?"

The question helps pull the caregiver into the conversation so that you can more easily push for the children to ride in the back. Just keep in mind that your focus is the safety and welfare of the child, not preferences you may have for the way the caregiver functions, and that you always have someone with whom to consult if you are unsure.

Ask a Mentor: Case Notes and Documentation

Volunteer Question

I'm confused about something. I was talking with my volunteer supervisor about my judicial review guardian ad litem report to the court, which is due in a couple of weeks. I told her I couldn't remember whether "Billy" said he heard from his mom on his birthday. Then my volunteer supervisor asked me to check my case notes to see what I had written. I jot down things on pieces of paper sometimes and stick them in a manila folder. What does she mean by case notes?

Mentor Answer

Your case notes document everything you, the guardian ad litem, does on the case—an ongoing chronological record.

I'm a big fan of complete case notes because I use them so much. It's a problem to take a case from a former volunteer who kept no notes as I don't know what the guardian has been doing. I'm at a disadvantage, too, when taking a case which has re-opened in court and the file given me from the previous guardian has nothing but a few emails and some court documents. A guardian's work involves much more than what appears in a guardian ad litem's report or child visit report.

It is easy for me to use the computer to keep a running record of everything I do—phone calls made, phone calls that don't get returned, notes from staffing, interviews, more detail on a visit to the child than I need to put into my report, brief reference to emails exchanged, what happened in court, etcetera. I then periodically print up my notes and put them in the file. Others prefer handwritten notes on log sheets.

I reread my notes carefully before writing a report or going to a staffing, and I really study them before testifying at a termination of parental rights trial. Keep in mind that your file and notes can be seen by other parties. There is a good set of reminders about documentation at the end of chapter nine in your training manual. One primary job of the volunteer is monitoring the case and documenting the work you have done on it.

Your notes are going to serve as evidence of the work you have done on a case. If you don't document it, it didn't happen!

Ask a Mentor: Addressing Situations of Concern

Volunteer Question

I'm really upset. I'm on my second case now and I made my first home visit late this afternoon. The case involves four children who are placed together in a home. The two boys are seven and eight. The girls are five and fifteen months. The caregiver had everyone in the living room when I got there. There was a space heater plugged in with a long extension cord and the toddler was wandering around near it. The caregiver picked up the toddler and made all the others sit where she told them to sit.

Almost immediately she began to scold the 5-year-old girl "Janie," berating her for wetting her pants in kindergarten today. Then she mentioned four or five other "bad" things Janie had done since she got home. She ignored the boys except for scolding them because they were slow to respond when I asked them about school. You could tell she liked the toddler as she kept saying fond things to her while being harsh to Janie and scolding the boys.

I worried about these children all the way home. They've been through a lot already and really need a supportive caregiver. What should I do?

Mentor Answer

You sound as though you did a really good job of observing during your visit and you are right to be concerned. Send an email tonight to both the case manager and to your volunteer supervisor describing what you observed. If you don't hear back from them tomorrow, call them. The case manager may have concerns about the placement and your observations could help her decide about the appropriateness of this placement. The space heater sounds like a safety hazard and the emotional environment does sound negative.

Why don't you plan to make another visit in a few days, unannounced this time, either to confirm your concerns or feel better about the placement? This could help you clarify your impressions. You will find that most placement homes are good for the children, but sometimes a negative situation occurs. I'm glad you were observant of what was going on and want to make things better for the children.

Ask a Mentor: Understanding Your Role as a Guardian

Volunteer Question

This doesn't sound like a problem or a question, but I need to say it to somebody. I really don't feel like I'm making any difference in my case and wonder why I am being a guardian ad litem for "Buddy." He is in a good foster home and his mother is working on her case plan. Visits with her have gone well. There's no father in the picture. Buddy needs therapy, but the case manager arranged for that immediately. He seems to have adjusted to the change in school and is doing well. All my visits to him have been good, I just don't think I'm doing anything for him. Am I missing something?

Mentor Answer

If you had not been checking on all these areas, how would we know that things are going well? Monitoring is one of the most important responsibilities of a guardian ad litem and you seem to be doing a good job of that. Furthermore, you probably are the only person in the case who is visiting him at school where he spends a big part of his day.

Not every case has a big crisis or unique need for the guardian ad litem to jump in and save the day. And you never know when something could happen—the case manager could change, his placement might have to change or even the therapist could change. Having you as a constant person in his life is important to Buddy. Learning that he can trust you to be there for him frees him to let you know his desires. You need to know and report his wishes regardless of what you deem is in his best interest.

Likewise, you don't know what good things might not happen or what unfortunate things are avoided simply because you are staying on top of things. Keep on monitoring—what you are doing is very important for Buddy. In doing so, you are prepared to fulfill your obligation of reporting to the court and advocating for his best interest.

Another thought, if you believe this case is going well and that the child is stable, perhaps you could volunteer to take on a second case. Each case is unique and presents different challenges. Think about it. However, if time is a problem for you, just know that what you are doing for Buddy is very important.

Volunteer Question

This is "Katie," one of the volunteers you agreed to mentor. I've been doing fine with my cases. Actually, I'm on my third case because none has lasted more than six months. But there is something about this case that I'd like to discuss. It may seem petty, but it makes me wonder if I'm not doing something right.

The case involves two children, "Roger" who is ten and "Tammy" who is eight. They have different fathers, neither of whom live here nor are involved in their lives. The children were sheltered from the mother because she failed to keep them safe from an abusive boyfriend. She does have a case plan, visits the children regularly and they love her. The children currently live in the home of an adult cousin who is married but has no children. This couple loves them.

The maternal grandmother lives nearby, but her health is too poor to care for the children. They see her almost every day. I urged counseling for the children and they do have a good therapist. The children look forward to going to him. The children did not change schools, so things are going well there and the children love their teachers. I've observed several visits of the mother and have some things I'm recommending in the upcoming staffing.

So, what am I concerned about? The children don't seem very responsive to me. They always greet me nicely and answer my questions but don't seem to care whether I'm there or not. I don't feel I'm getting through to them. These children have several adults who are going to bat for them. Why am I needed?

Mentor Answer

Roger and Tammy are not old enough to distinguish the significance of your role from that of other supportive adults. To carry out your role you don't have to have a strong emotional connection going on between you and the children—they are responsive enough to help you carry out your role. The other supportive adults cannot approach this situation with the kind of objectivity you have and with your commitment to make responsible recommendations.

Remember, you are serving these children regardless of whether they remember you this time next year or not and their lives will be better because of your work.