True Confessions of a Guardian ad Litem

Say what? A guardian ad litem ("in law") is a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children. I have been a volunteer one for seven years. And it has been an education about the social and spiritual fabric of modern society.

Original sin being a universal, there has never been any shortage of abused and neglected children, I suppose, in the history of the world. Still, the cases I encounter never cease to stun and sadden me.

Now, I do not pretend to be a counselor, though some elements of guidance may emerge from time to time. Certainly I am not a social worker. Essentially, my endgame is to write reports to the court and stand and deliver at judicial hearings "in the best interests of the child." Only the child. The state and the parents have their own lawyers. The only type of bar I have ever been admitted to does not require a J.D.'s license.

Here I will report my own experience. As an erstwhile intelligence officer, I am always wary of inductive reasoning run amok. However, I have had enough interactions with enough people to surmise that my experience is not singular.

The Visitation of Intergenerational Iniquity

The first thing that became overwhelmingly real to me was that, in each case I undertook, substance abuse, physical abuse, truancy, unemployment or underemployment, adultery, divorce, and problems with the law—all of these or most—went back three generations. That the Almighty visits the iniquity of the fathers unto future generations (Exodus 20:5; 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9) has seemed abundantly clear in all this. Of course, this is less an angry God than a matter of logical consequences. Screwed-up parents tend to foster screwed-up children who grow up to become screwed-up parents themselves. Breaking the chain usually requires an intrusive righteousness extra nos.

I have witnessed sad examples of this visitation of iniquity, but will spare the reader prurient, brutish, and vulgar examples. But one incident is particularly telling for all. One morning I arrived at the courthouse, Family Division, for a preliminary hearing concerning two young children in a neglect case. I met the father of one (in that most depressing waiting area, filled with folks fully looking the part of downtrodden trouble), who was cohabiting with the mother, who also had another child from a previous relationship. As I introduced myself and my mission as a court-appointed advocate for the children, he responded, "Oh, yeah. I had one of those when I was a kid."

I have long noticed that modern news, entertainment, and public and political conversations seem to associate family breakdown solely with people of color in the inner city. Certainly, ills like those enumerated above are often more concentrated in those communities. But they are by no means exclusive to them. In fact, there are in North America more abused and neglected children as white as a flounder's belly than there are such who own darker complexions. The same goes for poverty. My own state is one of the whitest in the United States. Yet there is still too much business for us New Hampshire guardians ad litem. There is no need to cross the state line to Lawrence or Boston—unless we want to get into racial quotas for some obtuse reason.

Taking into account all ethnic groups in the United States, 40.7 percent of all children are born out of wedlock. No one racial or class group, which are increasingly mixed, has anything to be proud of. It's a disaster for all—red, yellow, black, white, brown.

Eyes That See Only What May Be Touched

In my guardian work, I have developed a new appreciation for the truth of the saying, Nemo dat quod non habet—"You cannot give what you do not have." In no other context have I ever witnessed so many intergenerational families so devoid of any religious sensitivities. I have not observed anti-theistic thoughts or feelings, just no such—no theism, no deism, no nothing beyond the here-and-now. Nothing has been passed down because there was nothing to be passed down, even were it only to be rejected. One can't be an apostate when one has never believed.

Throughout my earthly sojourn thus far, in many endeavors and environs, only seldom have I entered a home where there was not at least a whiff of something spiritual. It may only have been an heirloom image handed down, an old Bible clearly not opened in years, or some cute Hallmark doodad. There might have been an occasional oral expression referring to the divine, the true meaning of which was probably understood only by the speaker's parents—or grandparents. Sometimes there was a passing, matter-of-fact comment about being lapsed, or a statement about how one was raised, or at least an indication of personal discomfort, perhaps owing to loss or guilt, when religious matters were brought up. And certainly I have encountered the occasional attachment to some wacko cult or newly popularized state of mystical being.

But my latter experience as a guardian has been that, among these broken families, there is no consciousness whatsoever that this world might not be all there is. This bodes ill, and the illness is no longer in the offing.

Nature Hates a Void

So far, most of the families (using a rather loose definition of that word) I have engaged in my court-appointed role have been working class (my own roots), or would be working class if anybody were actually working. It is remarkable to me how well one may live on various entitlements, but again, that way of life is often passed down from one generation to another. But the problems of dysfunction that occasion intervention are not peculiar to the working class; they have also made their way into the middle class—and in ways that cannot be respectfully and subtly hidden, as had long been the case.

We have an opioid crisis in New Hampshire that has reached epidemic proportions. Along with some cousin states in Appalachia, New Hampshire has one of the most acute outbreaks in the country. Significantly, opioids are not the preferred drug of the inner city—that is crack cocaine—but of the white middle class.

Seldom have I agreed with President Trump's undisciplined diction on, well, anything. But as a third-generation New Hampshirite, I think he got it right in calling the Granite State a "drug-infested den," however much our congressional delegation aggrievedly protested the allegation.

New Hampshire has always had a strong libertarian streak. The admirable state motto is "Live Free or Die," which was first uttered by Revolutionary War General John Stark, hero of the Battle of Bennington and, before that, a member of Rogers' Rangers. But Stark made the declaration in the context of the personal and communal discipline of his Scotch-Irish Presbyterian heritage. Indeed, in his time, New Hampshire was part of the Bible Belt. Today, my state is one of the least church-going states in the nation.

I played eleven years of football and coached four, but never, in all those years, did so on a Sunday morning. These days, each Sunday morning before breakfast and Divine Service, I drive to a nearby convenience store to pick up a newspaper, and usually swing by my town's athletic fields. They are full of children, surrounded by loud parents and (often) overbearing coaches, playing football, soccer, baseball, softball, basketball—you name it. It's a sad sight to see, knowing that these youths won't be in church or Sunday school. No correlation to widespread addiction when they become teens? As I might have said when I was a teen myself, "Gimme a break."

The rector of an Episcopal church near these well-groomed grounds recently wrote a letter to the local paper in which he admitted that he had lost the battle of Sunday morning and would try 5:00 p.m. services instead. Perhaps that may help with attendance, but the children have already learned certain priorities. I believe we are witnessing the outcome of such priorities in the needless cases of substance abuse occurring in this upper-middle-class town.

I enjoy fishing at my local pond of 24 acres. I've been doing it for years with my fly rod and kayak and love it. It's a quiet pond down an old dirt road, and often I am the only one fishing. But lately I have several times observed—and busted up by my comments—well-groomed teenagers selecting the remote spot for drug use.

St. Augustine spoke of a God-shaped void in every man. But fallen man tries substitutes, including better living through chemistry.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Revisited)

I have neither the intention nor the remote ability to expand upon what Philip Rieff wrote in his classic 1966 book, so I'll just stick to his title. (And I won't wonder how he ever got married to Susan Sontag.)

Each year I have a selection of in-service training sessions to go through as a guardian ad litem. Most tend to be distaff support groups, and such are just not my thing (and I have occasionally been advised that I don't belong). But in these sessions and in meetings with social workers and other counselors along the caseload way, I have noted a thoroughly utilitarian outlook on human rights, responsibilities, and relationships.

Now, certain human interactions are indeed like engineering. All correct ways are God's ways, no matter how pedestrian. They are universal. Just as "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" works for screwdrivers whether held by a Christian or by an unbeliever, there are certain sociological associations and methods that are universal in application. But they are never the whole story.

My own experience has been that modern counseling in family breakdown situations are devoid of all matters spiritual and religious. Part of that void is due to the state's having mandated a naked public square (thanks, Richard John Neuhaus, for articulating that) for its workers. Another part is due to the politically correct spirit of the age. And a big part of it is simply due to ignorance and indifference.

So religious matters are never spoken of, although some of the social welfare literature passed my way occasionally contains a vague statement or two about how spiritual or religious beliefs may be important to someone. But that is at far as it has ever gone.

I do recall being surprised at a certain group meeting about one of "my" kids. Teachers, counselors, and administrators of various ilk were in attendance, and at one point, I appropriately, but without thinking, made one religious reference. A residential counselor, one with whom I had an excellent working relationship, immediately picked up on it and commented favorably, but all the others at the table were just bemused. Later, I mentioned the incident to my supervisor as a court-appointed special advocate, who is a committed Christian, and I noted how rare such interactions are in the social worker world. She quite agreed.

I have no solution to recommend, but it seems that a good portion of human need and experience is purposely being ignored.

Anything Good to Report?

So far, I've written of a spiritual, emotional, and often physical pathology, which I suppose is more the province of theologians and evangelists to ameliorate than it is mine. But I personally have learned something about the Lord's purposes.

Most committed Christians can recite Romans 8:28: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." I have an abiding salad days memory of a friend quoting that to me when a girlfriend broke up with me, and I all but told him to go boil his head (though he proved far more correct that he could ever have imagined). But actually the verse has proven incredibly true to me as a guardian ad litem.

Long ago, I heard the Anglican Bishop John W. Howe (-recently retired) state emphatically that the Lord never creates evil, but can use it for good. Well, my father was an abusive alcoholic. He drank himself to death when I was twelve years old, the oldest of three sons. Within my family there also were cases of mental illness and some inglorious in-house in-laws. I have wondered how anything good might ever have emanated from these circumstances.

My grandparents were initially working-poor immigrants. One of them spent his early years in a lower-east-side ghetto orphanage. And as one might imagine, my own childhood had its difficulties with a father who suffered Marine Corps PTSD (before it had gained a name).

Yet these days, I am, I suppose, upper middle class. No doubt my dress, language, and demeanor would signal that. Once upon a time, I was even a White House aide. Occasionally, while visiting people in troubled homes or in jail, I've sensed some suspicion or even resentment on their part with what I appear to be with respect to station. In these cases, I carefully unroll some of my own past to them, only so they might know that my empathy and experience are real. And such folks have invariably respected that, as my unhappy memories could never be feigned. In this way, some quite evil things in my life have been used for good, just as Scripture says.

Freedom from Admiration

Most people wish to be liked, admired, even loved. That includes me. But it isn't always going to happen, even when your intentions are pure and noble. In fact, doing the right thing in the Lord's eyes is as likely, if not more likely, to make you detractors as to make you friends.

Now, I had a head start on this fact of life prior to becoming a guardian ad litem. I was once second in command of a commissioned ship, a necessary step en-route to a command at sea. The job description, which dates back to the days of Sir Francis Drake, is simple: be the captain's hatchet man. Lose all sense of humor, lose all sense of proportion, lose all hope of making friends. I almost succeeded in that last, and fully excelled in the first two.

So I had a head start when advocating for children: I had already developed a rhino's hide. Still, one does not wish to constantly disagree with social workers, lawyers, troubled children, really troubled parents, and various other interlopers, interested parties, and judges. But in doing the right thing, or at least hoping to, one is bound to acquire adversaries.

I can be combative, but this work has constantly reminded me that the work is not about me, but the child. It is always not about me, or my written words, or my oral arguments, or my opinion that a parent or lawyer is a jerk. It is always about the child. Having never had the temptation to turn stones into bread or raise the dead, I have never been a fan of WWJD. But I have been able to apply in practical terms the admonition, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). Not that I have achieved this, but I have begun to understand what it means.

Tribulation & Good Cheer

When I applied to become a court-appointed special advocate, having been encouraged by my wife to do so over several years, I had no illusions that I would find the work easy. As with being a nurse or a naval engineer, the calling means that most engagements will occur because something has gone wrong.

Moreover, guardians ad litem can only advocate. The courts and the proverbial "system" will have their way. There are only a few Hallmark-movie type endings. But I did experience one. It was at an adoption proceeding for a little girl who had been removed from her home for neglect and "failure to thrive." Her parents' rights had eventually been terminated, and her foster parents, who were people of faith, were about to become her legal parents. The presiding judge asked me if I had any words to say. I had an easy and short response: "Your honor, I am absolutely delighted." And I was.

But in most proceedings I must recognize that my work is mostly damage control in things gone wrong over generations. The Savior spoke of his people having tribulation in the world, yet told them to be of good cheer. I have not yet perfected that synthesis. But I work and pray toward it.


For what it's worth—such is the outlook with which I have written. I realize that I might well have become one of those kids for whom I have advocated. So might my two younger brothers. But we had a mother who was a committed Augustana Lutheran, who had at one juncture switched from being a Swedish-American model to a World War II woman Marine. Against all odds assembled to thwart her, she selflessly accomplished for me and my brothers what so many of the children I have advocated for will never know.

Jesus said, "Suffer the children to come unto me. . . ." As always, he knows a good deal more than I.

is a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children in New Hampshire. He is also Secretary of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau and a retired USCG Captain.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #44, Spring 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |