Community Profile | Cathy Osman, Guardian ad Litem (2024)

Imagine you’re in your late 60s. You’re living in calm, quiet, woodsy Marlboro with your husband. You’ve just retired from a professional life teaching art at the college level. Your two daughters in their late 30s are living happy, productive lives here in the Northeast. Everything is coming up roses.

What will you do with your retirement? Just as Cathy did her whole life, she decides to continue giving of herself to others, but to give in a whole new direction: to help children who need her help. In 2019, on that edge of retirement, Cathy was talking with a friend who was a volunteer Guardian ad Litem (GAL) working with the local director of the program, Diane Shamas. Cathy wanted to know more. So you, as a reader, can know more about what the GAL program here in Vermont (variations of which are in place across the country), I’ll quote directly from the Vermont Judiciary website:

“GALs in Vermont advocate for children involved in court cases. Judges appoint one in all child abuse and neglect cases. The GAL makes recommendations to the court and advocates for the child’s best interests in and out of court until the case is over. The Guardian meets with the child at least once a month (for sometimes as long as two years or even more) until the court case is over. A GAL gathers information from parents, foster parents and other people close to the child. He or she also communicates regularly with Vermont’s Department of Children and Family Services and the child’s lawyer, promotes cooperation between all parties, and ensures that the court has all relevant information about the child.”

Cathy Osman was born in 1953 in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a recent Swedish immigrant, her mother a Norwegian immigrant. She attended a Bellingham, Wash., elementary school until grade four when the family moved to Puerto Rico where her father ran a tuna-packing plant for Starkist. They stayed for three years until the family moved to Los Angeles where the HQ of Starkist was located. Her father was now in upper management. After high school, she attended Sonoma State College for two years and then transferred to UC Berkeley where she studied painting and sculpture in graduate school where classes were "taught only by men who all seemed to wear big belt buckles!"

“I studied at undergraduate and graduate levels in fine art and have been a painter ever since. Tim Segar, a sculptor, and I married. In the '80s we had ten years on the Lower East Side in NYC living artists' lives. Subsequently we moved to Stephenton, N.Y., built a house there with two studios. We worked, among other jobs, at The Austin Riggs Therapeutic Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in their art therapy department. I was, and still am, an abstract painter who is interested in the appearance of things. By the '90s we moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. We both taught art within the five-college system there. I also volunteered with the Children Aid and Family Services in Northampton that matched me with a parent struggling to bring up a child. I had an amazing mentor who, like Diane Shamas, gave me the confidence that I could indeed be helpful.

“I was very close to going to Smith College to get a degree in their Graduate School of Social Work to become a licensed therapist, all the time working as an art teacher with virtually all female undergraduates at Smith, Mt. Holyoke and a similar student profile as Marlboro at Hampshire College.

“In the early '90s, after both our daughters had graduated from high school and went off to college [Lucinda, now 37, is a high school English teacher in Catskill, N.Y.; Nora, 40, is a physician in New Haven, Conn.] Tim and I both took jobs at Marlboro College. He taught three-dimensional art, drawing and architectural studies. I taught painting, drawing and printmaking. We loved Marlboro where an eclectic group of kids and teachers gathered. It was an amazing time. Everyone wanted to be there.

“I retired in 2019, one year before COVID hit. Then Tim retired from Marlboro one year before the college collapsed. That same year I met with Diane Shamas in Brattleboro. She is the regional director for the Guardian ad Litem program. Given her personal commitment, her drive to help children (and mine)... It was clear I had to engage.

“Being an artist, for me, is inward-looking. Academia and teaching looks outward. At that point in my life, and in retirement, I wanted to look outward. I especially wanted to help children. Now, as a GAL, instead of meeting students around art, I meet with lawyers, judges, people in school systems, family service employees, foster parents, parents, and fellow Guardians.

“The child-at-risk gets a court-appointed State Attorney who works in tandem individual Guardian like me. Both parents can qualify for court-appointed attorneys. We Guardians read forensic reports, become conversant with the legal system, court protocols... And I meet regularly with a whole host of people around the well-being of children and another host of amazing Windham County lawyers who hear us out. Kudos to them! Ditto to the local teachers, caring neighbors, family members, Department of Family Services and especially Diane Shamas who lives her job!” (To learn more about the GAL program:

When Cathy and the 40 or so other Guardians in our area commit to advocating for a child, she knows she is signing up for at least two years of advocacy for each family that she works with. The volunteers generally commit to being GALs for two years. That includes at least one meeting a month with the child, not to mention all the other meetings and advocacy, all with the hope that the child will gain support and not become in the custody of the state. “Yes, damage has been done, but there is so much potential. We are the conduit between the case-worker and the child and his or her lawyer. It’s all about reunifying children and parents. That’s what keeps me at it. It’s all so hopeful to be able to help. And there are never two cases alike."

Gordon Hayward of Westminster writes about individual men and women who contribute day in and day out to the life of our community here in Southeastern Vermont.

Community Profile | Cathy Osman, Guardian ad Litem (2024)


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