MARION COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - The Columbia Strong Guardian ad Litem Program for Marion County is asking for volunteers to help make a difference in the lives of children in foster care.
A representative for Chancery Court Judge Rhea Sheldon said that from June 1, 2017 to May 1st, 2018, 188 children in Marion County alone were placed in permanent homes, while 187 are still waiting in custody.
While officials say the numbers are significantly lower than recent years, youth pastor Shannon Willis said he hopes the program can further reduce the numbers.
"Over a six to eight month period, our goal is to try to fix those problems and be a solution to help children return to their home," says Willis.
Willis says he is working with several entities in the community to find permanent homes for children placed in Child Protective Services. He said the idea sparked a few years ago when a CPS worker reached out, asking for help to prevent a child from being taken from their home.
"It was an impoverished situation," said Willis. "She was a very nurturing and loving woman to her family, but she couldn't afford the things that she needed. I noticed as we were leaving that none of the lights were on. I thought maybe the lights were out. She said no. She just couldn't afford light bulbs."
Willis, who has spent time as a foster parent and also helps run a summer camp for foster families, said he realized that something had to be done.
He says now CPS social workers have on average 8 cases to an agent, but he says that wasn't always the case.
"Our child protective services [2 years ago] were so overwhelmed that each worker had close to 28 cases each," says Willis. "There's no physical way for them to be working and finding out what really is going on with that child and what needs to happen."
That's when the Guardian Ad Litem program was born under the sponsorship of Columbia Strong.
"We wanted to develop a program where we put a 1:1 ratio where a compassionate and caring person could be trained as a volunteer guardian ad litem and have that dedication to one case," said Willis.
"In Marion County alone, there are more than 200 children in foster care," Columbia Strong said in a Facebook post. "You can help these children through the Columbia Strong Guardian ad Litem Program for Marion County. It only takes a few hours of your time to make a life-long impact on the lives of these young people."
According to the post, Guardian ad Litem programs have been shown to help abused and neglected children to do better in school, receive more services, and even find a "Forever Family" more quickly.
Willis says after extensive training and background checks, volunteers will spend a few hours each week with the child, foster family, and the biological family to pinpoint problems in the household, all while being in communication with the Guardian Ad Litem Attorney and the court.
He says the duration depends on each individual case.
To volunteer, fill out a form at MarionCountygal.org. A person with Marion County Guardian ad Litem Program will contact you and tell you how you can make a difference.