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"As North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows and GALs for nine children from Stokes County in therapeutic foster care throughout the state of N.C., we can help ensure that the mental and physical health needs of these children are properly being addressed," Principe says.

As first- and second-year students at Wake Forest University School of Law, Craig Principe and Alexandra Ford volunteered as court-appointed Guardians ad Litem (GALs) in Stokes County, North Carolina—advocating for children in Department of Social Services (DSS) custody.

“Our experiences exposed us to the world of children suffering from parental neglect, abuse, and dependency,” Principe says. “We spoke with all stakeholders in the child’s life to help fashion the child’s permanent plan—often either reunification or adoption. We tried to advocate for that child in our reports to and appearance before the court, so that the child had a voice.”

Now, as third-year law students and Schweitzer Fellows, Principe and Ford have taken their commitment to giving vulnerable children a voice one step further. In today’s installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow,” we talk with Principe about his and Ford’s efforts to provide continuity of advocacy for children with severe physical and emotional disabilities who are in DSS custody. (We’ll bring you an update on these efforts via an interview with Ford this fall.)

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

GAL cases often involve significant issues of wellness—usually mental wellness, but very often physical wellness, too. In developing a project that really met the core objectives of the North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program, we spoke to our GAL supervisor and asked whether there were some children with more severe mental or physical illnesses that needed GALs assigned to their cases.

As it turned out, there were many. Because Stokes County is a rural county without significant resources, it lacks certain kinds of “therapeutic foster homes” for children with severe physical or emotional disabilities who happen to enter into the DSS system.  For example, some of the children we advocate for are dealing with drug abuse issues, suicidal or self-injurious behaviors, animal brutality, obsessive and compulsive disorders, blindness, autism, being non-verbal, developmental disorders, anger management issues, and learning disabilities. One child was so neglected that upon entering therapeutic foster care [he/she] was described to us as “almost feral,” but [he/she] has since made great improvements.

Such children in need of therapeutic foster care are placed outside of Stokes County, far away from family members or relatives, in placements or facilities that hopefully can meet their needs. However, all of the child’s hearings, planning meetings, and many of the child’s stakeholders still live and work in Stokes County. The geographic divide that is created by their circumstances is exactly the reason why a GAL is necessary to monitor the child’s therapeutic progress and to provide quality information to the court and DSS.

These children are also among the most vulnerable in DSS custody, because they are least likely to be adopted or to return home due to their disabilities. As North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows and GALs for nine children from Stokes County in therapeutic foster care throughout the state of N.C., we can help ensure that the mental and physical health needs of these children are properly being addressed. That is what our Fellowship project is about, and so far we have found that our involvement in these children’s lives is in fact going to affect and very likely improve their health care, therapy, and prospects for a brighter future.

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

First and foremost, I hope that our work will have a lasting impact on the lives of the nine children we are assigned to. Just two months into our project, we have already begun to establish short-term and long-term advocacy objectives for each child after talking with the children, their therapeutic foster parents or facility staff members, therapists, doctors, teachers, and family members. So far, we have had to help determine what is in the best interest of these children by making determinations as to whether they are in the right kind of facility or placement, whether plans for reunification or adoption should be expedited or delayed based on their therapeutic needs, and by trouble-shooting short-term urgent issues.

It is always an uphill battle, because a lot of these children are reluctant to trust new people, or have grown skeptical of those who claim they are “here to help.” Building the necessary trust to discover the issues that can then lead to the best treatments and decisions about placement requires a slow process of communication and visitation with the children and their caregivers.

Perhaps more significantly, the long-term impact of our project is to ensure that this work will continue after our Fellowship has ended. We are currently pursuing our plans to have the Wake Forest GAL program volunteers take on some of the Stokes County therapeutic care cases first, before committing to other cases that are easier for other Stokes County volunteers to handle.

Secondly, we plan to help support the establishment or growth of a GAL group at Elon University School of Law and to forge a partnership between both groups so that the geographic burden can be split between the two groups (one to the east of Stokes County and one to the west). Providing a continuity of advocacy for the most vulnerable and geographically isolated children in Stokes County DSS custody going forward will be a significant benefit to children who find themselves in such placements in future years.

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

I believe that mental illness and associated drug abuse is one of the most pressing health-related issues of our time, especially in North Carolina. The reason I believe this is because I have seen how many parents’ inability to cope with circumstances in their life has resulted in drug use and then abuse, which in turn has led to very severe circumstances for their children. The inability to cope with one issue often snowballs into other problems. Individuals may lose their jobs, their homes, the love and support of family members, and even custody of their children.

Their suffering in turn touches the lives of all those around them. Children become depressed, angry, violent, or suicidal themselves. Many aren’t receiving the emotional or academic support they need to succeed in school or to forge positive relationships with their peers or teachers. Children may also become abused, neglected, or dependent as a result of their parents’ inability to perform their parental obligations, which often results in children being separated from their parents and siblings, being dislocated from their schools and their friends, and finding themselves living in perpetual uncertainty as to what will happen to them next.

I believe mental illness and drug abuse are among the most severe health issues of our time, because they are a threat to the holistic wellbeing of entire families. Mental illness also severely affects physical health, social mobility, educational opportunities, job prospects, and other circumstances that reduce the prospects for a happy and healthy life.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

I think the most surprising aspect of my experience so far has been the severity of the neglect inflicted on the children we are advocating for and the severity of the mental and physical conditions that our children must deal with. Most of the children face extremely challenging illnesses and dramatically uncertain futures.

But perhaps the most surprising element of my experience thus far is how hidden the problem is. I have been exposed to an entire world, often referred to as “the system.” Previously, I have heard that term thrown around, but never fully appreciated its significance until becoming involved in these more severe GAL cases. There are the government agencies, the private therapeutic placement agencies, the private therapeutic foster homes and facilities, the social workers, the GALs, the courts, the juvenile officers, and more.

Therapeutic care is literally a cottage industry. The size and scope of that industry I only came to appreciate after a 2.5-hour drive into the rural sandhills of North Carolina, where I visited a child who lives in an “eyes on” limited access “level four” facility—one of many tucked away in non-descript buildings in non-descript locations throughout the state.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow means being more than just a law student. I have always approached my legal education as something more than career or professional training. I saw it as an opportunity to develop the skills and understanding to be not only a great attorney, but also a civic leader. Participating in the Schweitzer Fellows program is both part of that training and an opportunity to apply that training to a real-world problem.

After my Fellowship year, I hope I can always look back upon this experience as an inspiration, a reminder, and a confidence booster as to the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life and career I hope to have after law school.

Principe is a Schweitzer Fellow in North Carolina. Click here to read more about The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Principe it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Principe’s efforts to advocate for vulnerable children in DSS custody, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.