CHAPEL HILL — Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Lynne Wentworth likely would have made a fine professor, parsing linguistic issues and gently guiding students through the complexities of Slavic languages topics in which she nearly earned her masters degree.
Instead, Wentworth followed the tug of activism she first felt as a youth of the 1960s into a career helping some of her communitys must vulnerable residents: children who have suffered abuse or neglect so severe that they were removed from their parents homes.
As district administrator for the Guardian ad Litem program in Orange and Chatham counties, Wentworth leads a troop of more than 100 volunteers charged with recommending to a judge the best course of action for each child.
In this role, the issues Wentworth parses are of a far grittier variety, such as whether a child should return to a formerly abusive parent or go into foster care. And her gentle guidance helps prepare the volunteers she recruits and trains to evaluate these heart-wrenching and complex cases.
Its an awesome responsibility, and the work is intense, Wentworth says of being a guardian, which she did for six years. Theres the difficulty in facing what children go through, and in navigating the judicial and social systems, all while keeping focused on the heart and soul of the work, which is advocating for the child.
But her colleagues say her calm and thoughtfulness has helped her strike the right balance.
Lynnes leadership and her consistent, contemplative approach has earned this district great respect and allows the guardians to feel empowered in the work they do, says Kit Stanley, a longtime guardian volunteer and director of Family Visitation Services of Chatham County, where parents and children who have been separated can have supervised visits.
An activist at heart
Wentworth, 64, grew up in Durham, where her father held a variety of jobs, working as a jeweler and an insurance agent, for instance, before settling on a career in banking that brought the family to Greensboro when Wentworth was 10.
Her own career path was also circuitous. After graduating from high school, she spent more than a decade moving around the country, working various jobs her shortest stint, she says, was 29 minutes in a turkey plant and attending several colleges. It was the 1960s, and she was swept up in the eras anti-war politics and social upheaval.
It was a tumultuous and memorable and, in some ways, fun time, she says.
She eventually earned an English degree at a small New England college, married, and moved to northern California. When that marriage ended, she returned to North Carolina to go to graduate school.
Her English studies had focused on Russian literature, so she decided to study Slavic languages. But she left school before she finished her degree to take a job with the Nature Conservancy. While she enjoyed the exacting science of linguistics, Wentworth says she felt drawn to the idea of working for a real-life cause.
It kind of opened up a new world and changed my way of thinking, she says of her work there. I had always been drawn to and loved nature and the environment, but I hadnt sat down and done anything about it.
Soon after, she married Jim Ward, a Chapel Hill town councilman.
Her next job, at a womens research center shared between Duke University and UNC-CH, continued to provide an outlet for her activist sensibility this time in supporting womens causes.
It was all tied into what I had done in the 1960s in terms of working for equal rights, fairness, justice and social programs, she says.
Her activist bent continued after her first son was born. She quit working outside the home, but started volunteering for Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services in Chatham County, where she was living at the time. The center tapped her to help write a series of lessons for schoolchildren on preventing sexual violence, which honed her focus on helping children.
I liked the element of taking a very serious problem and helping find things that would make it better for children, she says.
She returned to graduate school at UNC, this time earning a masters degree in school counseling, which led her to a position as a counselor at Carrboro Elementary School, where she stayed until her second son was born.
It was when he was still small that she sought out a new volunteer position, this time as a guardian ad litem. Early on, her cases gave her a glimpse of the worst situations a child might encounter, from chronic sexual violence to neglect by drug-addicted parents.
(Those cases) really opened my eyes to how bad some of these situations are, she says. Its so easy as a privileged member of society to think, There are people using drugs, or children sometimes get spanked too hard. But there are awful, awful things going on out there.
She didnt shy away from the shock. She continued to volunteer while also working as a preschool director until she took a staff position with the guardian program. Fifteen years later, she became a supervisor, and three years ago, she took over as district administrator.
Representing the children
The Guardian ad Litem program was created to fill a glaring gap in disputes between social service agencies and the parents whose children they take away because of abuse or neglect. While attorneys from each side battled in court, the children had no advocate of their own.
To remedy this, state programs were created to recruit child advocates. While some states use paid advocates or attorneys, North Carolina has used volunteer advocates since the early 1980s.
Volunteers interview the families and anyone else who might shed light on the childs circumstances. Then they write recommendations that an attorney presents in court. Judges consider that plan when deciding what to do with the child.
Wentworth started as a volunteer in the late 1980s and has a deep knowledge of what it takes to do the job effectively. Stanley says Wentworth strikes a good balance, being hands-on without micromanaging.
She helps volunteers by having them look at a case from all angles, says Stanley.
Wentworth supervises the volunteers and attends court with them one day a week. She says finding and training them takes a lot of her time, and that the work requires a key balance between the desire to help the child and the need for clear-headed judgment.
You want to train them into a neutral place without squelching the passion and energy that brings these people to us, she says.
Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at email@example.com or find Tar Heel of the Week on Facebook.