Ashley Edwards is a bankruptcy attorney for Parker Poe in Charlotte, and so most of her hours are spent dealing in numbers.
But on her own time, she researches the plights of children who are abused and neglected for the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem program. Edwards recalls one case where a four-year-old and one-year-old were found wandering around alone at 2 a.m. in front of a convenience store. Other cases involved sexual abuse.
Such cases can take a toll, no doubt. But knowing that she helped children out of bad homes and on to new lives made her work on the cases worth it, Edwards said.
“It is incredibly rewarding when you read these stories that are very sad, of children who are abused and neglected, knowing that that you are an integral piece to ending that neglect and abuse.”
Edwards is one of almost 150 North Carolina attorneys who dedicate their time to work pro bono for the GAL program, which is currently ramping up its efforts to recruit more attorneys in response to a critical need for more guardians ad litem.
The legislature approved the GAL program in 1983 to represent the best interests of abused children in and outside of court. North Carolina is one of a handful of states that lets non-attorneys represent a child in family court. Last year 4,455 people volunteered, spending an average of eight hours a month working on cases.
But the agency depends on attorneys to handle cases in which parental rights are terminated and the parents appeal the ruling to the state’s Court of Appeals. Pro bono attorneys handle about 65 percent of those appeals.
“We have not implemented a robust recruitment campaign for potential attorneys who could help with the appellate cases,” said Christina Harrison, assistant administrator for the GAL program. “It is our hope to start now, as opposed to waiting until pro bono week in October, to cascade our message across various outlets.”
The state bar strongly urges North Carolina attorneys to perform at least 50 hours of pro bono work annually. Harrison said the fact that attorneys can serve as guardians ad litem on appeal is “a best kept secret” that many lawyers don’t know about.
Last year there were 217 termination of parental rights appeals filed with the Court of Appeals. Right now, the GAL program has one staff appellate attorney, one associate attorney, 12 contract appellate attorneys, and 147 pro bono attorneys.
“The pro bono program involves representing the best interests of children in abuse, neglect, dependency and termination of parental rights cases on appeal” said Matthew Wunsche, the appellate attorney for the GAL program. “So, like our trial attorneys, our pro bono attorneys are advocates for children.”
Attorneys review court files and trial transcripts, settling the record on appeal, and, most importantly, Wunsche said, writing an appellate brief.
“In most cases, we are one of the appellees, because the parent is appealing from an adverse ruling in the trial court,” he said. “If we believe the trial court’s ruling was in the child’s best interests, then our job is to argue to affirm it. We hope that successful appellate advocacy will mean a faster path to permanence for our child clients.”
Attorneys at Parker Poe handle about 25 percent of the state’s GAL appeals, Edwards said. She has represented children for nine years and typically works two or three appeals cases each year. She said that attorneys don’t have to be litigators to work the appeals, as the work is transactional.
“It is difficult to say exactly how many hours an attorney will put into a typical appeal because so much depends on how complex the issues are that are raised by the appellant,” Wunsche said. “The most time-intensive part of an appeal is writing the brief. That usually takes several days of pretty focused work, but it can be longer or shorter.The good thing about appellate work is that most of it takes place outside a courtroom, so it is flexible and relatively easy to plan around other work.”
Edwards agreed, saying that one of the benefits of doing pro bono work for the GAL program is that attorneys can work on cases at their convenience.
Bahati Mutisya, also an attorney with Parker Poe in Raleigh, called her pro bono work for the GAL program “deeply rewarding.”
“Growing up in a stable and safe home environment will have a significant impact on a child’s long-term quality of life,” Mutisya said. “Advocating for children to have that stability, while also honing my research and writing skills, is one of the greatest benefits of being a guardian ad litem.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclaw