EAST BEND — When Michele Laskus began volunteering with a local agency seven years ago, little did she know that her volunteer work would take her from the role of child advocate to another important role — a mother.
A Vermont native, Laskus moved to East Bend 10 years ago though she continued to work virtually for a company based in Vermont. In order to get connected with her new hometown area, Laskus began volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL), a special advocate for children who are victims of abuse or neglect. As a Guardian ad Litem, Laskus spends time with a child who has been or is the process of being removed from a home due to abuse or neglect. GAL volunteers serve as the eyes and ears for a judge and helps to tell the child’s story in court. Laskus and her husband Joseph are also now foster parents and have adopted a child.
“Gaurdian ad Litem actually sprang out of wanting to become more engaged in the community that I was living in,” Laskus said. As a tele-commuter for work, many of her social contacts were still in Vermont so finding a place to volunteer locally gave her a way to “plug in” to Yadkin County.
Laskus said the opportunity to volunteer as a Guardian ad Litem knocked on her door three times and that’s when she realized it was a project she should pursue. After hearing a radio spot and reading two news articles about the growing need for child advocates in the court system, Laskus said she couldn’t ignore it.
“At that point I think I’d gotten enough taps on the shoulder that I needed to at least look into it and see what does it involve and is this something I might be able to make a difference in,” she said. “That’s what really started me finding out more and knowing there was such a thing and was a need here in Yadkin County.
Laskus said when choosing a volunteer opportunity her main goal was to choose something that allowed her to speak for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.
“My feeling has always been there are two groups, because they have a hard time having a voice of their own, that need somebody to be that voice, and animals and children are those two groups,” she said. Laskus said she has volunteered over the years with both animal-related and child-related organizations, but the role of a Guardian ad Litem was a very different level of volunteer responsibility.
“There’s a certain amount of trepidation when you initially start out and are assigned your first case, because it’s a big responsibility and you want to do it well,” she said. “You want to make sure you’re prepared. Once you take your first case and you see it through, for me, it was the point at which I knew that this volunteer opportunity was more impactful than anything that I’ve ever done before. It’s not something that is really distant from the person that you are helping. It’s very close to them. You see that you do make a difference and you see that it does matter. That was all the motivation I needed to continue on this road and to actively carry cases.”
During a time when the GAL program had very few volunteers, Laskus was one of the people who helped keep the program afloat, said Kathy Davidson, program supervisor for Guardian ad Litem.
“Michele was instrumental in keeping things going and making sure children were covered,” Davidson said. She also praised Laskus for her dedication and thoroughness in her role as child advocate.
“The whole time her focus is on the child,” she said. “She is so diligent in making sure that the child is not lost in the shuffle and that what happens in court is really in the child’s best interest.”
Davidson also described a recent case where a child was reunited with the family, due in part to Laskus’ encouragement of that family to make positive changes in order to keep their family together and provide a safe and happy home for the child.
The safety of the child is always of first concern to Laskus and other volunteers who help to speak for children who are going through these difficult situations.
“My role is to know the facts of the case and try to understand and be assured that where this child is currently is a good place for them and that their needs are being met there,” Laskus said.
During the course of a given case Laskus spends time at least monthly with the child or children and always make sure she discusses with them their own wishes to include in her report to the judge that will hear the case.
While the children’s wishes may not always coincide with her own recommendations, Laskus said it’s still important to “give them that opportunity to convey that information to the judge.”
In May of 2009, Laskus and her husband took on an even greater responsibility as advocates and protectors of children by becoming foster parents and subsequently adopting a child in 2011.
“We’ve been full circle,” Laskus said. “I’ve been an advocate of children who are in foster care, we’ve been foster parents and we’ve adopted a child who was in the foster care system. The interesting thing about that, is it all began with Guardian ad Litem.”
Laskus said her new roles as foster parent and adoptive parent have helped her become an even better Guardian ad Litem. She also made a very special effort to become a foster parent in a way that would allow her to continue her role with GAL.
“At the point in time when my husband and I made the decision that we wanted to move into being foster parents, I was actively carrying multiple cases,” Laskus explained. “I did not want to walk away from those children and basically pursue this other thing. I wanted to be able to at least see those cases through to completion. It was a very conscious effort to do both at the same time.”
A mindset of being able to fix a broken situation is what keeps Laskus going, she said.
“We can have a tendency to not want to get close to things that are difficult,” she said. “We get angry about things that are on the news or the horror stories that sometimes are first and foremost in some of these cases and I understand that, but I had to realize I can either become part of the problem or part of the solution. Having it bother me but not being involved is not being part of the solution. The emotion of it is hard sometimes but knowing that you are a voice for that child and that your recommendations matter is part of the motivation to continue.”
The Guardian ad Litem program has gained great momentum over the last few years, Laskus said, but the organization is always seeking new volunteers and working to create more efficient training opportunities for those who wish to volunteer. The next training course in Yadkin County will begin in May. For additional details about volunteering with Guardian ad Litem, contact Cathy Davidson at 336-849-7409.
Kitsey E. Burns can be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.