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2009-2010 North Carolina Schweitzer Fellow Rich McPherson

Rich McPherson -- who says that "If each discipline makes a substantial effort to treat people and formulate policies with eliminating domestic violence in mind, I am confident that we can be a model for how to end domestic violence" -- is a 2009-2010 North Carolina Schweitzer Fellow.

Every week (this week on Thursday, but typically on Tuesday), Beyond Boulders runs a five-question interview with either a current Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).

In our third installment, we talk with Rich McPherson, a 2009-2010 North Carolina Fellow whose Schweitzer service project is just beginning, but has already drawn local support and attention. McPherson, a student at Wake Forest School of Law, will be working with the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina to provide direct advocacy for children in high-conflict custody and domestic violence cases by serving as the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for the children. He will also create a training program and standards for GALs serving children in both high-conflict custody and domestic violence cases, and compile a community resource book that he will distribute to other child advocates.

Why did you develop this particular project?

I designed a project that expands advocacy and access to services for children whose families are in the midst of a high-conflict custody dispute. Many children in these contexts have physical, educational, emotional, and social problems that go unaddressed because courts are so busy attempting to resolve disputes between the parents.

I wanted to develop a project that helps these children in practical ways, and I believe having a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) provides several tangible benefits to children. As a GAL, I will be “the eyes and ears” of the court by interviewing family members, neighbors, teachers, doctors, and relevant parties in order to learn more about the life of the child. I’ll then compile a report that details why the family is before the court and addresses the current living situation of the child.

In addition to providing the court with the facts, I will also be providing the court with recommendations about what is in the child’s best interests. Sometimes these recommendations are minor, like rearranging a schedule or living arrangement so that a child gets more sleep, has a more safe play environment, or asking for some accommodation at school. Other times the recommendations to the court are more substantial: that a child needs counseling or medical service, that a child needs an individual education plan, or that the child’s best interest would be a new custody arrangement.

Hopefully, my work with the Children’s Law Center of Northwest North Carolina will provide practical benefits that improve the health and well-being of children in Winston-Salem.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I hope that my project will provide a lasting impact on the community by increasing the participation and proficiency of GALs in high conflict custody disputes. One component of my project is to recruit more citizens, law students, and attorneys to serve as GALs for children whose families are in high-conflict custody disputes. Simply put: the more GALs we have willing to serve children whose families are in high-conflict custody disputes, the more advocacy and service these children will receive — which will ultimately result in improved health and well-being for these children. I would love to see the Winston-Salem community have more GALs than children in need.

My project will also have a lasting impact on the community because I will work with the Children’s Law Center to come up with training and standards for GALs in the contexts of high-conflict custody cases and cases where there is domestic violence between parents. These situations can lead to a lot of GALs not knowing exactly what their role should be.  For the most part, GALs in these settings simply model the GAL standards in the neglect and abuse setting. I will work with the Children’s Law Center to come up with a training program and standards that clarify the role of GALs in these contexts. Hopefully, with a clearer understanding of their role, GALs will provide these children with even greater service.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

From a legal perspective, one extremely important health-related issue that we need to address as a society is ending the presence of domestic violence in our homes. Our society has come a long way over the last 25 years in addressing the problem of domestic violence. Despite how far we have come, there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be done in order to end domestic violence.

It is important that we recognize that the health problems related to domestic violence are far-reaching. In addition to recognizing the significant physical and mental impact that domestic violence has on the direct victim, we must also recognize the significant impact that domestic violence has on children who witness one of their parents being abused.

Solving this problem isn’t easy. It will take a comprehensive approach where legislatures, law enforcement, legal professionals, social workers, and medical personnel work together to treat all aspects of the problem. If each discipline makes a substantial effort to treat people and formulate policies with eliminating domestic violence in mind, I am confident that we can be a model for how to end domestic violence.

You’re an 09-10 Fellow, so your Fellowship is just starting — but what has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow thus far?

The most surprising element of my experience this far is the inspiration I receive from other fellows. A few weekends ago, there was a Celebration of Service where all of the 08-09 fellows and 09-10 Fellows were gathered together. It was amazing to hear about the different projects people had designed. I think you learn a lot about a person just by the type of project they design. Each Fellow seemed to design a project that was a great fit between the skill set they possessed and a health problem they were concerned with addressing. Listening to stories from other fellows and mentors I met, I was inspired to work even harder for the population I will serve.

While listening to stories about projects that were completed and projects that were about to get underway, I was struck by two things. First, there were so many different projects that addressed such a varied range of needs. Some of the projects focused on injury prevention in the youth sports context while other projects focused on the psychological and emotional well-being of an underserved adult population. It was great to see how many different ways the public health was being improved.

Second, while the projects in form and substance were all very different from one another, there was a surprising amount of overlap in terms of the help that fellows were able to provide one another. Whether it was words of encouragement when one fellow ran into a roadblock with his/her project, or sharing skill-based knowledge that helped a Fellow provide his/her population with better service, it was great to see that the fellows do not have to tackle seemingly insurmountable  problems on their own.

What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how will you carry it with you after your year as a Fellow draws to a close?

Albert Schweitzer’s legacy is inspiring because he lived a very integrated life. Unlike so many in modern society, there was not a disconnect between his faith and the way he lived his life. His faith called him to a life of service and he responded by going to Africa to serve what many would consider “the least of these.” I hope to follow his legacy by living a life that integrates what I believe with how I act.

I firmly believe that each child deserves the opportunity to grow up in a home that will ultimately enable the child to become an emotionally healthy adult that can live a productive and fulfilled life. Using my skills and legal knowledge as a GAL, I will attempt to live out my belief in the importance of childhood by advocating for the best interests of children in need.

ASF’s North Carolina program was founded in 1994, and is currently supported in large part by a generous grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. This year, 26 new Fellows from the area’s top colleges and universities have been selected to join the program’s ranks, each partnering with a local agency and devoting more than 200 hours of service—click here for details on the new North Carolina Fellows’ projects.