072717 Awards: Litchfield resident is state’s top child advocate
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Awards: Litchfield resident is state’s top child advocate

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Doug Bray was about to join the ranks of the empty-nesters. He wasn’t quite ready to let go.

“I thought I should find something helpful to the community to do with my time. I enjoy working with kids. I have coached soccer, taught Sunday school, helped with Scouts and volunteered at schools, and enjoyed doing those things,” he said. “I did those things along with my kids, and since my kids no longer were around I picked something else to try to help out with.”

A friend told him about the state’s guardian ad litem program. That was six or seven years ago. Last month, Bray was named the state’s Child Advocate of the Year. He is one of 33 volunteers in Georgetown County and over 1,800 in the state who serve as court-appointed guardians of children in Family Court in cases that involve allegations of abuse or neglect.

Bray, 59, is the manager of process control at International Paper in Georgetown. The Litchfield Country Club resident served a term on the county school board in the 1990s. The Cass Elias McCarter Guardian Ad Litem, as the state’s program is known, declined to make him available for an interview about his work, but allowed him to respond to emailed questions.

Bray has served as guardian to over 50 children. While they are all ages, he said he works most often with teens. “From swapping the secrets of the best fishing holes in Georgetown [County] to working on golf cart engines, Bray finds a way to connect with teens in a modest, open, effective and friendly way,” Rebecca Masters, the program’s county coordinator, said in announcing the award. “When I started, there were few male volunteers and the local coordinator thought I would do well with the older teens, who most often are males,” Bray explained.

The guardians act as the child’s voice in court proceedings. They meet with the children and learn about their circumstances in order to advocate for their interests. Their goal is to find the children a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible.

Last year, the Georgetown County office handled 98 cases, up from 84 in 2015. The volunteers complete a 30-hour training program and undergo a background check. They are asked to commit four to six hours a month to working with a child. Bray said he is currently working with four children, each over an hour away from Georgetown. Time is his biggest challenge. “I work, and even with my kids out of the house I still do not have enough time,” he said.

His first case involved child abandonment. “It turned out fine. Luckily the situation did not require me to do much, because the family who took the child in was wonderful. So, I really was just able to watch and learn,” Bray said.

Masters notifies the local volunteers about guardian requests. When one accepts, she gets a court order making the appointment. “This gives me the rights to look into and learn about the case,” Bray said.

He visits the children as well as their parents to explain his role and hear all sides of the story. “Between court hearings, I visit with the kids and parents and make sure the kids are being well taken care of. I become a friend to the children, learning about their lives, their school work, and encouraging and helping them understand the process. I advocate for them and try to make sure their lives are as normal as they can be,” Bray said.

Citing another example of what makes Bray a top advocate, Masters explained how he helped case workers get a laptop computer for a child after attending a continuing education class about helping teens nearing the end of foster care learn independent living skills. “[He] called me last night all excited. That is the first time he has ever called me. He said he was going to keep it in great shape and use it in college,” Bray said. “That’s the first time I’ve heard him say he wants to go to college! Amazing.”

The rewards of the program are in the relationships he establishes with the children. “Some I have stayed in touch with from the beginning, and I really enjoy being with them and watching them succeed,” he said.

Of his many cases, only one turned out in a different way from what Bray intended. “That one really did bother me. It still does. But I learned from it, and I do believe I am a much better GAL as a result,” he said.

Bray is an engineer, with a degree from N.C. State, not a lawyer. He said his reports to the judge in a case are brief and to the point. “I try to give the court and the judge a real feel for the lives of the children. I want the judge to know these wonderful children who, for no fault of their own, have had their lives disrupted. They need as quick of a resolution as the court can permit,” he said. “I also try to concisely point out what the root causes are. If I can make the facts plain and point out the root causes, then the court can easily make an appropriate decision.”

Bray’s oldest son and daughter live near Raleigh. His youngest son now works in Augusta. They have all been supportive. His wife Sharon is a science teacher at Waccamaw High. “She gets the brunt of it,” Bray said. “She’s actually taught some of my GAL kids. They tell her I am their GAL, but she knows I will not discuss cases with her.”

To learn more about the program, or to volunteer, go to scgal.org or call 800-277-0113.

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