SCVAGAL program volunteers represent the best interests of vulnerable adults in court cases across the state

April 13, 2015

Maria Patton

Maria Patton

Last year there were more than 3,600 reports of vulnerable adults being abused, neglected or exploited in South Carolina. Nearly 600 of these cases resulted in court proceedings. Many of these adults have disabilities, including mental illness, or have dementia.

The South Carolina Vulnerable Adult Guardian ad Litem Program (SCVAGAL) recruits and trains volunteers to serve as Guardians ad Litem (GALs), acting as unbiased representatives for the best interests of vulnerable adults. After an adult is taken into custody by the SC Department of Social Services, a volunteer or staff member is appointed to serve as a GAL for the vulnerable adult throughout that particular court case. The GAL then meets with the adult, law enforcement and others, collects information about the case and presents written reports to the court—all while considering the wishes and best interests of the adult. The volunteers receive training from the Arnold School’s Office for the Study of Aging (Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics) where the SCVAGAL program has been based since it was established in 2012.

Maria Patton, director of the SCVAGAL program, was recruited by the Office for the Study of Aging to help develop the program after 20 years as the director of the Community Long Term Care Program within the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services. “Developing the SCVAGAL program was a collaborative effort by several agencies involved with vulnerable adults,” Patton says. “Through this collective effort, we now have a well-established program with volunteers in 30 counties across the state.”

After completing a successful trial period as a pilot program in 2012-2013, SCVAGAL and their supporters pushed for a more sustainable infrastructure by lobbying for funding and a permanent home base. In doing so, Patton and other program members testified at a Join Legislative Committee on Aging in November of 2013. By May 16, 2014, Governor Nikki Haley had signed the SCVAGAL Program into law, making it a part of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Aging.

For the 2014-2015 state fiscal year, the program remains with the Office for the Study of Aging and is funded by the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The Lieutenant Governor’s Office on Aging is in the process of requesting funding from the General Assembly to continue the program. “So far the response has been positive,” says Patton. “Funding for the program is the third 2015 legislative priority for AARP and is also a legislative priority for the Silver Haired Legislature.”

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