Child Advocates needed

Superior Court Services is looking for child advocates, Cheryl Kringle, Guardian ad Litem Program Coordinator, told Soroptimist at their regular Wednesday lunch meeting. While the number of cases varies, she would like to build the volunteer program with a number of advocates in the wings and be prepared for the needs of the youth in the community.

“It is some of the most rewarding work you will ever do,” Kringle said.

A child advocate, as its name implies, advocates for the child in dependency court cases. A dependency is a case that has been filed in court alleging neglect or abuse of a child. This is a volunteer position.

In the past, a dependency case was filed in court when a child was taken out of the home and away from the family. In 2021, The Keeping Families Together Act, and came into effect in 2023. Families Together stressed keeping the children if not in the home, then with relatives rather than entering them in the foster care system. Since the passage of the act, dependency cases filed in court have dropped. “Correlation is not causation, so I can’t say a reduction in filed cases resulted from the new law. However, in the same time period there has been a substantial reduction in filed dependency cases, according to the linked data,” Kringle told the Journal later.

While the intention may be good, and when it works keeping families together is powerful. Unfortunately, that isn’t always feasible, and sometimes it isn’t always beneficial to the child. Kringle told Soroptimist she suspects that Washington’s Children, Youth, and Families Services, the legislature and others in the dependency system are realizing the act is not working entirely as anticipated.

“I am concerned that our county could experience the filing of a bunch of cases in a short period of time,” Kringle said to Soroptimist, which is another reason she would like to bolster the number of advocates.

A few clues that changes are on the horizon, according to Kringle, is that the legislature has already made an amendment in response to concerns that synthetic opioids were not being considered a risk of imminent harm to children under the law.

“There appear to be ongoing discussions in advocacy groups and the news about Keeping Families Together acts, plus dependency statutes historically evolve over time, all suggesting the law could be subject to changes,” Kringle said.

For those interested, there is no assigned skill set.

“Our volunteers are people generally generous and give their time to meet with people involved in the case to find out what is going on with the child,” Kringle told the crowd.

The individual meets with the child regularly, providing information and recommendations to the court about what is in their best interest. Two qualities come in handy: liking children and being objective.

“It takes a person who cares about children and cares about their welfare. I think that would be fundamental. It does take a person who is willing to try to be objective when dealing with families who are in very bad situations,” Kringle explained. “Child advocates will be coming into a child’s life probably at some of the worst points in their families’ lives. If a child is being moved and a dependency has been filed, the family is in crisis.”

The advocate needs to be objective in the face of that crisis, to listen and report to the court. These situations can be emotional, and Kringle stated that Child Advocates are given a lot of support.

“We have great volunteers and we have great camaraderie. We have to maintain confidentiality, so we formed a tight bond. You will learn so much about the court system, about mental health,” Kringle said. If situations become intense, and the volunteer needs support, supervisors like Kringle and Super Court Services Director Linnea Anderson provide direct emotional support and connect volunteers with opportunities to expand their self-care toolbox. The volunteers also meet monthly providing There is online training which takes about two hours a day for three weeks. “It is a close-knit group,” Kringle reiterated to the Journal, “that finds solace in their confidential community around the valuable work they do.”

Should a volunteer want or need to stop becoming a child advocate for whatever reason they no longer can, Kringle makes that process very easy as well.” Often people go through the training and realize then that it isn’t for them,” she added. “And that’s fine.”

For community members who may not want to become a GAL, but still may want to do what they can to be there for island youth, Superior Court Services is beginning a free new training called “Stewards of Children.”

“Our office has a goal of trying to reduce sexual abuse in our community and protect children from sexual abuse in our community. One of the ways we are going to do this is by offering this training,” Kringle explained. Attendees of the training will learn to unpack sexual abuse myths and facts, examine ways to minimize opportunities for abuse and discuss strategies to open communication. “How could you be a person that a child might actually talk to if they were being sexually abused?” Kringle asked. The answer starts with believing what the child says “Whether or not you are critical or suspicious about what their limits are, about what they are saying, the best way to interact with a child who is coming forward about sexual abuse is to believe what they are saying. If you indicate any sort of skepticism then you can shut them down,” Kringle told the group of Soroptimists. “That has proven to be the number one cause of many kids who have gone on for a long [enduring sexual abuse]. They reached out, got shut down, and then were afraid to talk about it.”

“Start by Believing Day” acknowledges that core principle. On Wednesday, April 3 from noon to 2 p.m. Superior Court Services will host a gathering on the courthouse lawn to help unify with a single voice those who have been impacted by sexual violence.

While Kringle wasn’t sure where San Juan County fell in the data of sexual assault, she said, “I only know that any child being abused in our community is one too many and that everyone in our community can play a role in prevention, which is why we are undertaking the Stewards of Children training and the Start by Believing campaign.”