Advocating for Hamilton County’s Children in Court
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Laura Arick
Have you ever considered being a volunteer advocate for children involved in court proceedings in Hamilton County, Indiana? The Hamilton County Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)/Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program was established to advocate for the best interests of the children involved in court proceedings in the county. The Hamilton County GAL/CASA is in need of volunteers, with and without legal training, to assist with the growing need of advocates.
When children are involved in court cases, the judge may choose a GAL or CASA to look out for the child’s interests and welfare. GAL/CASA volunteers are the “eyes and ears of the court.” A GAL/CASA volunteer’s purpose is to act for the child in the courtroom, deal with social services and be the voice for the child in cases of family crisis. The GAL/CASA protects the child’s safety and interests throughout the entirety of the case, whether it is a divorce, paternity, guardianship, abuse, neglect or juvenile delinquency-related case.
Funding for the Hamilton County GAL/CASA Program is generated primarily by Hamilton County with some expenses covered by the State of Indiana and through grants. Parties may be required to reimburse the GAL Program for services rendered.
Hamilton County GAL/CASA Program Director Shelley Haymaker explained the process and training involved to become a GAL or CASA. Haymaker oversees the GAL/CASA Programs for both Hamilton and neighboring Tipton counties.
“The biggest commitment that we ask of the volunteers and our goal is that we have one case [with] one CASA and one case [with] one GAL,” Haymaker said. “We try to keep the same advocate on that case, and people need to understand that a case could go on for a year or two years, but we don’t want our person to change from start to finish on a case for the benefit of the child. The GAL or CASA will meet with the child a minimum of once a month, though some will meet more frequently, depending on the GAL or CASA and the case.”
Haymaker explained that the training takes place on the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department campus in Noblesville. Potential GAL/CASA volunteers must complete a 32-hour training course during evenings and weekends. Individuals will go through criminal record checks and need to be able to complete the required reporting on time. A prospective volunteer must be able to dedicate the time to contact the child and travel to homes and facilities related to the child. It is important to note that GAL/CASA volunteers must be able to attend court hearings if required during the case but will never have to enter the courtroom without representation.
“The unique thing about our county is that we have an attorney matched up with every advocate,” Haymaker stated. “Our laypeople and even our attorney advocates will have an attorney representing them in a hearing.”
Haymaker trains laypeople to work on abuse and neglect cases and trains licensed lawyers for the divorce, paternity and guardianship cases.
“For their training, attorneys who volunteer receive a free CLE credit, but they have to commit to taking a case or two as part of the program,” she explained. “The program has grown a lot since I came on as director in 2000.”
Haymaker attributes the growing number of cases and children in need of advocates to the growing population but specifically to the growing number of cases directly related to the drug addiction crisis throughout Hamilton and Tipton counties.
Her team consists of her colleagues, Adele (Addie) Wood, Casandra (Casi) Nelson and Cathy Brownson. Together, they divide and conquer the caseload and train incoming volunteers.
“Addie and Casi represent the advocates who work the abuse and neglect cases,” Haymaker said. “Kathy and I work with the GALs. We will be posting our new training program for 2019 soon. If people are seriously interested in learning more about our GAL/CASA program and in becoming a volunteer, I would encourage them to check out our Facebook pages for Hamilton County GAL/CASA and Tipton County CASA. They can also watch our videos on YouTube – just search ‘Shelley Haymaker.’”