In 1983 the Guardian ad Litem program was created by the NC Legislature to represent District children in Court cases of abuse and neglect. In September of 1984, the first class of GALs was trained with coordinator Kathy Jacobs (now a DSS SW.) Jean Moore, Jan Schmidt, Rex Taylor and Kenneth Ashe were members of that first class.
There was no manual for the GALs in the beginning; the new advocates “felt their way along.” Calvin Underwood, who was Director of the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, was supportive and helped build a receptive climate. District 28 Judges were also positive and understood the need for this work to protect the interests of children. Rebecca Knight was the DSS attorney; she was followed by Charlotte (Wade) Nallan.
In 1984 Richard Schumacher was the first GAL attorney advocate in Buncombe County. Barry Master was also part-time in 1994. Diane McDonald and Ingrid Friesen were later under contract with the state to carry our caseload. During the next 25 years Jim Siemens, John Adams, Judy Rudolph, Jerry Miller, Mike Tousey and Carridy Bender served at different times as our attorney advocates. Since 2012 Amanda Armstrong speaks for the GALs in court.
On the NC state level, during those same twenty-five years, the administration has been led by three amazing women: Virginia Weis, Ilene Nelson and Jane Volland. They were instrumental in developing the program that is now used to train all NC GALs. Cindy Bizzell is credited with writing much of it. This NC training manual was also adopted by the National CASA. In 2012 Cindy Bizzell became administrator of the 5000+ NC volunteer/staff GALs.
Many changes took place in GAL applications over the years, most notable was computerization of information, required references, criminal background checks and now fingerprinting. There are up to four training seminars each year; new volunteers are required to participate in 30 hours of training classes before they are sworn in by a judge and receive their first case. In 2012 there were 166 volunteers working 399 cases.
The Guardian ad Litem office was originally one room on the fourth floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse. From 1984 until 1998, the GAL office moved to the 8th floor when the Juvenile Court was built. As the County needed more room in the Courthouse, the GAL offices were moved to the Hays and Hopson Building on the edge of Pack Park from 1998 to 2006. When that building was sold in May of 2006, the GAL offices were moved to the Asheville Office Park. The county is required by law to provide office space for this program.
By 1988 there were 25 volunteers when Jean Moore took over as District Administrator working
with Dee Zucker who was the first Program Supervisor. In 1994 Betsy Bolton became a supervisor, and two years later Sharon Cox joined the team. Jennifer Nehlsen came in 2004 with Coby Wellshear arriving in 2007. Such longevity of service and personal expertise has given this program it’s strength, although they would credit the many dedicated volunteers. In
2012, Jennifer Nehlsen was appointed the second District Administrator of Buncombe GAL. Sarah Young joined the team as a supervisor later that same year.
There were only a few dozen local GALs in January of 1992 when the Guardian ad Litem Association was formed. Jan Schmidt was instrumental in applying for a 501(c)3 non-profit status. Deborah Heil was also involved in this effort. The goal of the newly formed association was the Continuing Education of the GALs and to get together to talk about situations involved with their cases. Members would meet and bring sandwiches. Anna Mae Nickatopolus aided this non-profit effort.
The Articles of Incorporation of the Asheville Area Volunteer Guardian ad Litem Association, Inc. were established October 29, 1990, for charitable and educational purposes, by the registering agent Georgena Hixson. There were three original directors – Diana Allen, Jan Neu and Gena. The By-Laws they agreed upon set up operating details which provided for a Board of seven or more, amended only twice to augment the term limits of the secretary and treasurer. Pam Gretz and Ty Erickson were the secretary and treasurer who ably served the longest terms in those two positions. GALA Membership was by annual payment of $12 dues (increased to $15 about 2000) by any 28th District Guardian ad Litem.
Besides Education, another purpose of the GALA became supporting a Scholarship Program later named the Children’s Assistance Fund. The original donation came from Gena Hixson with monies she earned when helping in the GAL office during the bereavement absence of the director. Other donations were given in memory of Jean Moore’s father. Through subsequent years, these monies were embellished by fund raisers and individual efforts. “Grants” (usually $75) were given to children in the DSS system for requested items or lessons or experiences which could not be met by family or agency or governmental means. Dee Shelton became the GAL administering this program since 2002.
For many years a GALA newsletter was somewhat regularly mailed to members through the beginning of the millennium. When computers became the more efficient way to contact members around 2000, email has been used for news and announcements.
The first president of the GALA was Randy Allen who served two years from ‘89-’91. Elizabeth DuMez was secretary and Gena Hixson was treasurer. Elizabeth also sat in on the DSS Agency reviews. Board members periodically met at Gena’s house, each having an equal vote. They planned bi-monthly programs for all the GALs that lasted from one to 11⁄2 hours held originally at the Friends Meeting House on Edgewood Road. Later, as the GAL members grew in number, the Unitarian Universalist Church on Charlotte Street became the venue for at least three two-hour training sessions each year.. The Annual Meeting and election of officers was usually planned for November. Board meetings were held at various coffee shops, then Beth-Ha-Tephila Temple. The Holiday Party at the Governor’s Western Residence was a tradition begun in 1990 when Jan Neu arranged for the location. The other purely social gathering was a summer picnic held at Jean’s home or that of other Guardians. Since 2010 this event has been held at a city park.
To honor the social workers we work with, an Appreciation Breakfast has been an annual event in March for many years. GALs provide all the casseroles, croissants, coffee and conversation.
An Asheville Area Guardian ad Litem website www.galbuncombe.org was built in 2002 with the help of Dee Shelton and Jack Jones. This was updated in 2010. The GALA Board is working with UNCAsheville to expand this site.
With the guidance of Kerry Harris, an Adoption Ceremony was introduced about 2005 for those families who wished it. Our supervisors help prepare a “Forever Family” pledge and certificate, and the GALAssociation provides John McCutcheon’s book, HAPPY ADOPTION DAY.