WINNSBORO — Safe. Healthy. Well fed. Good shelter. Those are the objectives Fairfield County Volunteer Guardian Ad Litem Larry Zager has in mind when he considers his impact in the lives of children.
After a career in the military and a second career managing a family health care clinic, Zager, who is married with one son, decided to pursue a different path. He moved the Lake Wateree about seven years ago and became a volunteer guardian ad litem at the urging of a friend.
A month after completing the required volunteer training, he was assigned a case. Currently Zager provides advocacy for five children in Fairfield County.
“The volunteer does not have to be a lawyer or have experience with children. He or she just needs to have a love of children, an open heart and an open mind,” he said.
He was a parent before becoming a volunteer guardian ad litem. Since starting the program he really said he began to appreciate not only what he has but the opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives and their families.
A little over three years into the process, the children he was working with were adopted into a new home.
“The happiness I saw and the development process that occurred (in the family unit) was incredible,” Zager said.
He said his greatest challenge is remembering that what he observes and then wants for a child might not necessarily be what he and his own child have. There are a variety of family units and life circumstances that can be beneficial to children and the goal is to take a broken situation and rectify it using whatever means are available.
“As a volunteer guardian ad litem, I represent the child within the educational, social services and the court systems,” he said.
He keeps a case until a child is either re-unified with his or her parent(s); placed with a relative; or adopted. The commitment could be long term depending upon the circumstances.
“Theoretically you could be assisting a child until age 18. But the key word is ‘volunteer.’ The program realizes people are donating their time, so if something comes up in your life, you can change,” Zager said.
The recommended time commitment is spending four to eight hours per month plus the volunteer is obligated to represent the child when the case goes to court.
“I think the majority of people can find four hours per month to volunteer,” he said.
He completed 40 hours of free training to become a volunteer. Once the training is complete, the candidate is interviewed to make sure he or she still wants to be a volunteer. If so, then the candidate is appointed by the court as a volunteer guardian ad litem. One child was born in prison and he represented that child, so Zager has represented children thus far from infancy to age 16.
“Each time you assign a case you start out with a clean, blank slate,” he said. “There are family dynamics that vary depending upon the situation at hand.”
Zager said he has conducted interviews with people in prison and has had goal-mapping sessions with parents.
He carries five cases right now, though he’s had heavier caseloads in the past. Though he works in partnership with the Department of Social Services at times, the volunteer guardian ad litem role is separate and distinct from DSS.
“I can support my own goals for the child if I think that would be better for the child,” he said.
The Guardian Ad Litem Coordinator is assigned a case by the court through DSS. Based on the number of volunteers in the county, the coordinator would call and find out if a volunteer was interested in taking the case. Currently Fairfield County has four volunteers but more are needed
“The biggest issue in being a volunteer is having a desire to do it, to want to do it,” he said. “Don’t do it for status or anything else but for the love of a child. Do you care about your community? Are you willing to make a difference? The future is our children and what better way to make a difference than with children who have (that need)?”
Contact Kevin Boozer at 635-4016 ext. 14 or email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @kevinboozer.