Good Neighbor Helen Marotto: Helping Children Make a New Start

"If I don't speak for these children, who will?"

Brothers Shaquel and Aljhanod and their two sisters were plucked from squalid living conditions by a great aunt—and none too soon. Their father had disappeared. Their mother sometimes wanted them but often didn’t. "We were dirty and had no food or water," Shaquel, now 16, says of his life in a trailer park near Wilmington, N.C. "My mom tried, but the streets have a way of changing people."

Unfortunately, the boys’ mother didn’t see it that way; she accused her aunt, Daphney White, of taking her children. Into that emotionally difficult situation stepped Helen Marotto, today a real estate practitioner with Exit Homeplace Realty, in Hampstead, N.C.

It was 1999 and Marotto was handling her first case as a court-appointed advocate responsible for abused, neglected, and dependent children in the foster-care system. It’s a position known in North Carolina and many other states as a Guardian ad Litem (and in some states as CASA). Think of Marotto as a fairy godmother, but instead of a magic wand, she applies hard work, empathy, and a strong voice, helping children to find the best possible alternative in often excruciating circumstances.

"If I don’t speak for these children, who will?" she asks.

In the case of Shaquel and his siblings, Marotto, 72, was certain that the best possible alternative was staying with White. "I wanted to see something different and good for these children," says White, 56, a single teacher’s aide whose aunt raised her. In the 10 years since White became their guardian, Shaquel and his siblings have thrived. So have another four cousins, who were also placed with White.

"Helen is exceptional," says Liz Kachris-Jones, district administrator for the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem program. "The family court system is a huge bureaucracy but she’s never dropped the ball. And she’s done this longer than most volunteers. Ten years is incredible."

One of the ways Marotto stands out is for the extensive research she does to find better lives for the children she represents. Recently, North Carolina established the "Family Find" pilot program, which uses methods inspired by Marotto and other guardians to standardize locating children’s family.

The payback for her success is being assigned some of the hardest cases—children who have serious behavior or health problems or who are older. Marotto puts her all into these cases, sometimes with extraordinary results.

When she was assigned "Robert," he was 14 and his mother had abandoned him, so Marotto began a search for relatives of his late father. "[Robert] knew he had family in another state," she says, but he didn’t know where. Through the father’s death certificate, she searched cemetery records to discover who had paid for the plot, then scoured phone books. Her detective work led to Robert’s grandmother, then to his half-brother, acclaimed Broadway actor and singer Franc D’Ambrosio, who created the title role of the Phantom of the Opera in that show’s national tour.

"I met [Robert], and in six weeks I petitioned for custody," says D’Ambrosio, who was 40 at the time.

Marotto remembers the judge’s decision vividly: "He stood up, leaned toward the crowd, and said, ‘Is there anyone in this courtroom who doesn’t want me to send this boy home today with his brother?’ The courtroom erupted in applause and tears."

For the brothers, the connection has been life-altering, says D’Ambrosio, who prefers not to publish his brother’s real name. "You’re going along with your life and suddenly you get a surprise call that you have a sibling. You can continue the sins of the fathers, or one person can say, ‘Stop the cycle right now.’

"When I took him in," D’Ambrosio says, "he was failing seventh grade and he used to shake, worrying about aging out of the system and being alone in the world. But I raised him to be an outstanding young man, and he is. He graduated from high school with honors and is a sophomore in college. He has also changed me. I had a focused, selfish life as an actor on the road 10 months a year, but he helped reprioritize my life. And it’s all due to Helen’s true diligence."

Helen Marotto
Exit Homeplace Realty
14875 Highway 17N
Hampstead, NC 28443

Cape Fear Guardian ad Litem Association
320 Chestnut Street, Suite 405
Wilmington, NC 28401