Though only in their 20s, Jarom and Merrin Packer are foster parents to a teenage boy. Merrin Packer is also the Community Outreach Manager for the Third District Guardian Ad Litem Program. (Courtesy photo)
By Gaye Bunderson
Merrin Packer acquired firsthand knowledge of the influence a guardian ad litem can have on the well-being of children when her two adopted younger brothers came to her family out of the foster care system. “I was 16, and I heard of their experiences and saw their limited support,” Packer explained. “My mother thought the person who made the biggest difference on their behalf was the guardian ad litem.”
A guardian ad litem (or G.A.L.) is a person a court appoints to investigate what solutions would be in the best interests of a child. This can be advocacy for a child in foster care in an abuse or neglect case, a divorce, or a parental rights and responsibilities case. A G.A.L. investigates the situation, talks to all the parties involved, writes a report, and then gives that report to the presiding judge. They talk to, among others, caseworkers, doctors, teachers, parents, and other relevant parties. Their work gives the judge a comprehensive view of the situation to help facilitate the best decision possible for the child or children involved.
Packer is the Community Outreach Manager for the Third District Guardian Ad Litem Program, which includes Adams, Washington, Payette, Gem, Canyon and Owyhee counties. Because of her own family background, when she went to college she volunteered with the Court Appointed Special Advocate (C.A.S.A.) program, as well as volunteering as a guardian ad litem.
“And then they hired me,” she said. She has been community outreach manager for five years.
Her brothers were 6 and 4 when they were first fostered, following a difficult childhood. They are now 18 and 16 and have become well-grounded young males. “They went through therapy and counseling. My family realized that what they needed most were positive adult relationships, and we surrounded them with that, including people in church, and family and friends.”
Packer herself is now 27, and beyond her work with the G.A.L. program, she and her husband Jarom have a foster son: Brenton, age 14, who went through a painful childhood that included abuse. “He’s a good kid. He has amazing faith and wants to serve God,” Packer said.
“We have the same joys and struggles as the average parent,” she continued. “They may be magnified as a foster parent; but even when we struggle, we know our biggest purpose is to give this kid a chance. Sometimes it is a sacrifice, but it’s teaching me to love as Christ loves.”
Jarom is only 10 years older than Brenton, and Packer admits she herself is a little taken aback when the 14-year-old calls her Mom. But the situation is nonetheless working. “I’ve wanted to do this forever; I had 3 miscarriages. We wanted to foster eventually but thought we’d have our own children first. But God said, ‘That’s not the way it’s going to happen’ — it was not subtle at all.”
Their foster plans also didn’t initially entail a teenager.
“We wanted a baby; we didn’t imagine a 14-year-old. We went through lots of training. Our intentions are pure, and God is definitely helping us,” said Packer.
Just as she is stepping up in leadership of the Third District Guardian Ad Litem Program, she is stepping up to be the best foster mother she can be as well. “I came from a home where my mother was strong and I am a strong mother too,” she said. “It’s something my foster son needs.”
Her own selflessness in fostering and working as a community outreach manager is frequently matched by the volunteer guardians ad litem she works with. “They are given tons of training. We’re always double-checking to make sure the judge has the whole story. The caseworkers and the G.A.L.s are often on the same page, and it helps the judge. Our mandate is ‘best interest,’ or what’s in the best interest of the child; the caseworker must pursue reunification of the child with a parent.”
A guardian ad litem’s work generally requires about 5 to 8 hours a month. The Third District Guardian Ad Litem Program currently has 70 volunteers. “We need 150 to advocate for every child,” Packer said.
The program has more women volunteers but also has “some pretty stellar guys,” according to Packer. “We have people in every stage of life and every category and every level of experience. This type of work appeals to anybody. Anybody who wants to help children. Whether the outcome of the case goes our way or not, the impact is significant. If a child has a guardian ad litem, they are 50 percent less likely to be re-abused and have to be declared again as wards of the state; 43 percent less likely to enter juvenile detention; and 8 times more likely to graduate from high school.” (Statistics are from the National C.A.S.A. Association.)
“People should know it’s hard work, but it’s worth it. Every effort and everything you can do to help makes a difference.”
Debi Duncan has been a guardian ad litem in the Third District Program for five years and said, “It’s very rewarding; each case is different. Each case is frustrating, but I’ve always been happy with the way it’s turned out.”
Duncan originally wanted to be a foster parent herself, but said, “I could see the heartache in that attachment. Being a guardian ad litem was the next best thing.
“It’s beneficial. It gives the judge a different perspective. I’m also making sure the biological parents are doing what they need, including going to counseling and getting drug-tested.”
When she concludes her research with all parties and gives her written statement to the judge, she said it is based on fact, not opinion, and also stated, “We do get to make a recommendation.”
The recommendation helps the judge determine whether the child should be returned to his or her biological family or be put up for adoption. In three of the cases she’s worked on, the children were returned to their biological parents — an outcome she was comfortable with.
Asked if her recommendations are valued by the court, she answered, “Very much. We are respected, and the judge has more information available to make a decision.”
She has a paying job and said she gives about 10 hours a month, roughly, to her work as a guardian ad litem (guardians ad litem are not paid). She is also the mother of two sons.
“Some people ask me, ‘How can you do that, be a guardian ad litem?’ It’s hard. But it’s so rewarding and really needed. It’s valuable, and it does make a difference. I wish more people would do it.”
Packer would love to enlist more people like Duncan into the program. She and others involved are doing what they do for all the right reasons. As Packer said of her guardians ad litem: “They do it out of the goodness of their hearts, and they really have an impact.”
Those interested in becoming a part of the guardian ad litem program may contact Merrin Packer at firstname.lastname@example.org.