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: Sources of Case Information

Volunteer Question

I need some suggestions about reaching my dependency case manager (DCM). It has been several weeks since I've had an update from her on my 7-year-old "Sally." Sally was having some school problems the last time I talked to the DCM. Likewise, she told me that the therapist had only seen Sally twice. She also said that daycare where Sally stays after school had some concerns. I need to find out about these things. How can I get the DCM to return my calls?

Mentor: Are you counting on the DCM to provide you with all the information regarding Sally?

Yes, I figured one source is the most efficient way.

Mentor Answer

As guardians and advocates for these children, we should be going directly to the various persons who are providing services or information and not relying on the DCM for our information. We stay in contact with the DCM to get information not otherwise available and to check our observations and assessment with what the DCM is seeing.

It is really important that we directly talk with parents, caregivers, teachers, therapists, daycare staff and any other collateral contacts pertinent to our cases. Sometimes we can get in touch and obtain information by email or phone. If we do some of our child visits at the daycare or at school, then that gives a good opportunity to talk directly with the teacher or daycare staff working with the child. And of course, we always maintain regular contact with the caregiver.

Judges need our recommendations that come from an independent perspective—not based on information filtered through a third person. Staying in contact with significant persons in a case is the only way we can really do a good job advocating for our children.

Ask a Mentor: Interviewing Parents in TPR Cases

Volunteer Question

My newest case is one with three children who were severely abused by the parents more than one time. The Department of Children and Families immediately filed a petition for termination of parental rights (TPR) this last time. I'm just starting the investigation process and am making a list of the people I ought to interview. I've met the children and talked with their caregiver. I put the parents on my interview list, but I've been thinking about it. What is my purpose if the children are not going back to them?

Mentor Answer

There are a number of reasons and I'll suggest several. You will be required to write a special report called the Manifest Best Interest Report prior to the trial. Even though you will obtain much information from the records and various documents, talking with the parents will help you do a better job completing this report. Also, interviewing them will help you to decide whether you really support TPR.

Another reason for interviewing the parents is that it will help you determine whether you support supervised visitation with the children and whether these visits should be supervised by a therapist. You will certainly understand the children better if you talk with the parents and learn something about the parental environment in which they lived. If the parents still live in the same house, you will also get an idea of the children's previous physical environment. And remember, it will be important to interview the parents separately. If you are hesitant to do these interviews by yourself, be sure to ask your mentor or your supervisor to go with you.

Ask a Mentor: Continuing Relationships

Volunteer Question

I am almost finished with my first case. The child "Jessie" is now twelve years old and is placed with her grandmother who has permanent guardianship. I've had the case for almost a year and a half and have spent a lot of time with Jessie. We have a really good relationship. I'm not sure whether it is appropriate to continue the relationship after the case is officially over—I don't believe it would matter to her grandmother one way or the other. I have not talked to Jessie about it, nor have I had a final case visit. I've been thinking about what comes after the case ends.

Mentor Answer

There's no cut and dried answer to this. I have taken the position of leaving it up to the children. When I make my final official case visit, I make it clear that the court no longer needs me to keep visiting and checking to make sure things are going well. Then I tell the children that I will always be their friend and that they can call me. I've had a variety of experiences.

The girl in my first case stayed in touch for about ten years. She then moved to another state and I heard no more. The girl in my second case still stays in touch—it has been over seventeen years. Some I've never heard from. Just last week, however, a boy who was three years old when I took the case and is now eighteen called me to ask for help on an issue. Some guardians assigned to older youth stay involved after the case ends so that they can serve as mentor for youth striving to transition into adulthood on their own. Occasionally it is the parent or the permanent guardian who will stay in touch or will call about something. This means they too learned to trust you and respect the help you can give.

If a guardian prefers not to continue a relationship with children at the end of a case, there are ways to say a caring goodbye that effectively concludes it. Furthermore, if children have a really good support network of family and friends—grandparents who have been involved or other relatives, for example—then they are less likely to need a continuing relationship. They move on with their lives. I let it be their decision, making sure they understand that I will continue to be their friend and that they can call me.

Ask a Mentor: Your Role in Court Hearings

Volunteer Question

I know I may sound foolish saying this, but I feel rather useless when I'm in court. I just stand there next to the attorney and volunteer supervisor and don't say anything. The attorney does the talking and the volunteer supervisor takes notes. In the end, I leave wondering what good it did for me to be there.

Mentor Answer

I should probably tell you to talk with your volunteer supervisor and the attorney, but I have a feeling you want to know what another volunteer thinks about being in court. I am going to talk about my experiences, but then you may still need to talk to the volunteer supervisor and the attorney with whom you are currently working.

I've been in court more times than I can count and there are times I leave feeling as you have described—but only for a few seconds. I then remind myself that by being present, I have heard firsthand what transpired and will not have to rely on secondhand information about court events affecting my child or children. I also remind myself that I am present in case something comes up about which I have information.

In one court hearing, during the exchange among the parties in a case being closed with the children placed with the mother, it occurred to me that I needed to assure the judge (there was no report for the hearing) that I had spoken to each child individually and that this was what they wanted. I whispered this to the attorney and she asked the judge to let me speak.

If you know in advance of something you wish to say directly to the judge—and not through the attorney—speak with the attorney about it prior to the case being heard. Judges and courts vary. Some judges want to hear from the guardian in most of the hearings. Prepare in advance what you think might be important to contribute or a specific point from your report that needs to be emphasized. Check with your attorney to find out whether they want to know in advance what you will be saying. You will certainly want to be present if your child comes to court. If the child wants to speak with the judge in chambers, you will be the one to go with the child.

Although you may not speak in court, it is your responsibility to provide via your volunteer supervisor important points for the attorney to have in mind when your case is called. This will be particularly important if it is a hearing for which you have not provided a report.

All in all, your role in court hearings—regardless of whether you actually speak—is critical.

Ask a Mentor: Prioritizing the Child's Needs

Volunteer Question

I just finished my first visit to the two children in my case. I am just overwhelmed with the long list of needs which the caregiver identified and I don't know where to start. The list includes everything from clothes to diapers and a bed for the three-year-old. The caregiver also wants help getting Medicaid for the children. This is my first case and I'm not sure how to handle all of this.

Mentor Answer

The first thing you must do is remember that you are not a social worker or the dependency case manager (DCM)—your commitment is to advocate for the children. Working on these needs is primarily the responsibility of the DCM. Call the DCM and ask her about the things on the list and see what she is handling. If there is something the DCM says the agency just cannot provide but which you feel is important, talk with your volunteer supervisor about possibilities for finding a way to meet that need.

A part of your advocacy for children includes knowing their needs and knowing who is obligated to respond to the needs. Then you keep monitoring whether or not the needs are being met. Gradually as you become experienced, you will become more and more familiar with resources and how to make use of them when you believe there are needs—such as a tutor—that the guardian can help meet. You probably remember from your training that Child Advocates II, the nonprofit which supports our work with children in this circuit, is one such resource.

Ask a Mentor: Dealing with a Difficult Case

Volunteer Question

I'm reluctant to talk about this, but it is bothering me a great deal. I'm having real trouble learning to like the child in my case, "Mark," an 11-year-old boy. There are several children in the home, and he manipulates all of them. He tries it with me too. He has several other traits which really concern me. The caregivers don't seem to let these traits bother them and say they just deal with any misbehavior when it occurs.

When I talked with the therapist he said that he had only seen Mark twice. I am aware that Mark has a very troubled history, and I know that liking the child is not my focus. But I'm concerned whether I am being sufficiently objective in determining what is in his best interest. I have really started dreading my visits, and I feel so guilty about my feelings.

Mentor Answer

This is something that can happen. Don't punish yourself about it. Talk with your volunteer supervisor and together decide whether it would be better for you to take another case and let this one be assigned to someone else. With the information you provide, the volunteer supervisor may be able to involve a guardian ad litem who is uniquely suited to this situation. We want the child to have the best possible representation and for you to have a satisfying experience so that you don't become discouraged.

If you do give up the case, be sure to have your file updated so that the new guardian can get a better start. Check to see that you have included case notes that document everything you have done, copies of emails and copies of all your child visit reports. If you are not in the habit of printing the documents scanned to you from the guardian ad litem office, the volunteer supervisor can supply those. I hope that you and your volunteer supervisor can resolve this—both to your satisfaction and to the benefit of the child.

Ask a Mentor: Visit Length

Volunteer Question

I'm concerned that all my recent visits to my child have been for only about fifteen minutes. I arrange to visit in advance and go with the intent of staying longer. I'll just get started playing a computer game which "Jesse" likes and the caregiver will say, "Oh, Jesse needs to change to his Cub Scout uniform as we need to leave in a few minutes." The next time it will be something else which cuts short the visit. Sometimes she apologizes, but basically she seems to think this is okay.

Mentor Answer

Yes, I would be concerned too if I could see my child for only fifteen minutes a month! It also raises a question of whether the caregiver is manipulating circumstances to make the visits short. At any rate, the next time you call to arrange your visit stress to her that you want to set a time when there will be no problem for you to stay an hour—at least 45 minutes.

You may need to remind her that you are required to make these visits and that they need to be more than token contacts with Jesse. In fifteen minutes, you barely have time to learn that he appears okay. You can't observe much about how he is relating to other children in the home or how he is relating to the caregiver. He isn't warmed up enough to talk about school, other activities or anything that might be troubling him.

If a guardian ad litem happens to be working on a case where visitation is needed several times a month, then shorter visits part of the time may be adequate. Remind the caregiver that occasionally you will visit Jesse at school or daycare if a younger child. Likewise, if the caregiver is not a parent then some of your visits can be to observe his visitation with the parent. When your monthly visit is at the caregiver's then do stay about an hour most of the time.