WESTMORE — They call her Grammy.
Judy Ann “Midge” Gallagher of Westmore has volunteered as a child’s advocate in family court for scores of children, many of them teenagers, over a decade.
As their court-appointed “guardian ad litem,” she’s been their advocate, the voice for the children in hearings about their care or supervision.
She’s been assigned a child sometimes starting at 13 years old or younger and been their advocate until they turn 18 or until the state says she’s no longer needed.
Some stay in touch with her afterward, she says.
“Some of them call me ‘Grammy.’”
Gallagher is also grammy to six grandchildren of her own. She can’t say off the top of her head how many children she’s worked with over her 10 years with the program.
Gallagher is one of the volunteer guardians ad litem in Orleans County, where the need is greater right now.
Karen Ackerman, guardian ad litem coordinator in Caledonia and Essex counties and temporary coordinator in Orleans County, says they need more volunteers across the Northeast Kingdom.
That might reflect the increase in the impacts of substance abuse on families, she said.
Guardians ad litem are volunteers who fill the role of child advocate in the court system, serving children who may be designated under state law as in need of care or supervision. The child also receives an attorney to represent them in court.
The judge hearing a child’s custody case will request a guardian ad litem, and the call goes out for a volunteer through an email network, says Gallagher.
The guardian ad litem is an advocate for the child’s best interests in court, working together with the attorney, Ackerman said.
A guardian ad litem should have an open mind, a reliable vehicle and be able to pass a security clearance of the type needed to volunteer in public schools, Ackerman said.
They have to be “able to talk to people about sometimes difficult stuff,” Ackerman said.
This volunteer role often attracts people who have worked with children, like retired teachers, school nurses or counselors, Ackerman said.
The volunteers receive three days of training, and a fourth day after being involved. They work first with a mentor to walk through how a case flows through the system.
A guardian ad litem has to be honest and respectful, have time to meet with a child every 30 days, and meet with the child and others involved in their care or supervision at scheduled meetings at a family’s home, at school or at a public setting, at court hearings and elsewhere, sometimes over years.
Often they are the only constant in the child’s circumstances, Ackerman said.
That draws Gallagher to volunteer when a new case comes up.
“I have a lot of teenagers because I love teenagers,” Gallagher said.
If she takes on a case, she receives all the information that the court provides, which includes phone numbers of parents, the attorney and social worker involved, and others.
Within a day or two she calls the parents and explains who she is and what her purpose is, and asks for a meeting to introduce herself and meet the child.
They don’t always expect that phone call, Gallagher said.
“I think it’s important, very important for you to understand each case and each family you are working with,” she said.
“I just go in there with a smile, and I try to explain myself.”
That’s not always easy, because each family takes the process differently.
She seeks a rapport with the parents, and especially with the child.
“I need to have people trust me.”
Often the family is already disrupted, with the child in foster care, she said. That means she must meet the foster parents and the child, and then the parents separately.
“I have to have a rapport and understanding … what this child is going through,” she said.
Then she is in court with the child and family members as the child’s case moves through from beginning to resolution. She showed a pamphlet that describes the different types of hearings a child old enough to understand may expect. That pamphlet helps her see the process from the child’s perspective, she said.
She said she always hopes to see a child grow up happy and doing well. But it doesn’t always happen, sadly.
“There have been cases in the 10 years I’ve been doing that still haunt me because it didn’t turn out exactly the way I thought it should,” she said, tearing up.
Some say she’s too emotional about the children, she says.
“If I don’t get emotional I don’t know who will.”
She sees the children’s need for trust all the time.
“These kids have to know that you care about them. They have to know that they can trust you. They have to know they can talk to you. Those are really important things.”
She sees children who are scared at first. Later she got a hug. Another child said “thank you.” Another said “I know you care.”
One child, after Gallagher said she cried a bit at the stress of a situation, told her “No one has ever cried over me before.”
“That’s what keeps me going,” she said.
Gallagher treasures the updates she receives from those who want to stay in touch.
One girl will graduate from college soon. Another is on the dean’s list and wants to be a dental hygienist.
Being a guardian ad litem is a calling for Midge Gallagher. She hopes others will volunteer too.
“Anybody who loves children, who wants to make a difference, should look into being a guardian ad litem,” she says.
“If it’s just for one child, you’ve done a great service.”
Anyone interested in volunteering should call Karen Ackerman at 802-748-6600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/programs-and-services/guardian-ad-litem-program.