What Is a Guardian Ad Litem?

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I remember the first time I heard the term “Guardian Ad Litem.” I had no idea what it meant. I did know it was about to cost me a small fortune per hour. I also knew I didn’t have a say and that the Guardian Ad Litem was court-appointed. I was frustrated since I had no idea I would have to pay for this required child advocate, and I had no choice as to who would represent the interests of my child. This was a custody and placement situation, and it was a bit hard to believe a lawyer would be trusted to know what was best for my child. However, in cases that have children involved, the court requires an impartial adult to advocate for a child’s best interests.

The Guardian Ad Litem collects facts from all sides and makes a recommendation based on what they feel is best for the child.

A Guardian Ad Litem, or GAL, is the attorney appointed to represent the best interest of the children involved in court cases. They are usually appointed for children involved in any type of family court case (visitation, custody, abuse, neglect, adoption, etc). They are an attorney for the children only and are not working for parents, social workers, or agencies.

In most cases, the Guardian Ad Litem is appointed by the court. You do not get to choose who will represent the children. You may, however, be responsible to pay for the Guardian Ad Litem, depending on the situation. In most cases, parents are responsible to split the cost. When it is an adoption case, sometimes the cost is covered with agency fees or by hopeful parents. In foster adoption cases, birth parents are often responsible for the cost, not the foster parents.

In some areas, the Guardian Ad Litem may have a court-appointed volunteer to help them called a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA.

Both the Guardian Ad Litem and CASA workers should have some training in topics relating to child-centered issues. They should be familiar with permanency plans, child development, local case law regarding child advocacy, childhood trauma issues, and what is expected of child protective services and how that timeline functions.

The GAL should be kept up to date on any and all changes in the child’s situation. Any concerns need to be brought to their attention. A good thing to do is document things you would like to share with the GAL. Things to keep track of that may be helpful are missed visits, missed doctor appointments, evidence of not following court orders, information shared by the child that includes statements of abuse or neglect, and any other concerns. It is important to include dates in your documentation.

The GAL should be present for all court hearings. They are there as an impartial representative for the best interest of the child. The court should have all paperwork and documents sent to all attorneys for the case, and this includes the Guardian Ad Litem. There may be times where there is a schedule conflict, and the GAL doesn’t appear in person. If this is the case, a written recommendation may be sent in by the GAL to the judge.

If the Guardian Ad Litem isn’t involved enough or doing their part, then you can request a change. Be sure that you have documented any reasons you feel the child may deserve a new attorney (for instance: ignored calls, missed hearings, uninformed, haven’t met with children, etc.). Also, remember that you may make a request to change the GAL, and the request can be denied. If you simply do not like the attorney representing the children but have no reasons other than a personality conflict, a judge may not allow a change. It is important to try to work well with the GAL if possible.

The GAL usually meets with their child clients and speaks with them regarding their case. They should ask child-appropriate questions when dealing with the children. It is important that while talking with children the attorney doesn’t lead the child in any direction and instead listens to the child. Sometimes, children are too young, and the GAL cannot get any information from the child. In these cases, a GAL must rely on interviewing the adults and reading court documents to help them make a recommendation for a child’s best interest.

The GAL should also speak with parents or guardians regarding the child(ren). They should take into consideration any information the adults have shared when determining their recommendations to the court. Ultimately, their responsibility is to find what is best for the child and represent that best interest in court.

A GAL will make decisions based on the case facts. They will consider the basic elements of the case individually. Not all cases are the same. For instance, the needs of an infant are different from the needs of a teenager. The actions of a parent influence the teen in a different way than they would an infant. A parent may be able to provide a safe environment for a teen despite medical or mental health issues that would prevent them from providing for a young child.

When dealing with a GAL for adoption purposes, they are there to ensure that the child is placed in an appropriate home that can meet all of their needs.

When we adopted through foster care, we didn’t have to pay the GAL fees. Thank goodness for that! However, that may not always be the case. We had two separate adoption situations happening at the same time with different counties, courts, judges, and Guardian Ad Litems. In both cases, the biological family was responsible for expenses incurred during the case.

When one of our adoption cases was appealed, the GAL was a real help to us. He stayed very involved and answered all of our questions. He only met our child once, even though he worked the case for several years. In all fairness though, our son was young during the process. He did, however, collect information to support that we were the best placement for our son.

To be clear, he was not an attorney for us as hopeful parents, but an attorney to represent that the best interest of our child was to remain in our home permanently after he assessed all the information. His biological father decided to appeal the termination of his parental rights. It was a long process for us. However, due to the fact that he was incarcerated from the time our child was 6 months old and was still expected to be incarcerated for years to come, he could not perform parental responsibilities. This seems obvious, but in cases like this, everything must be documented and proven. The Guardian Ad Litem did a good job in using our documentation along with state evidence in helping to move the case forward.

Typically, once a Guardian Ad Litem is assigned by the court, they will represent the child until the case is closed. In custody or placement hearings, this may be several years as issues can arise as the child(ren) get older. Unless you have petitioned for a change, whenever you have issues regarding the details of visitation, placement, or decision-making about the child, the place to direct the question would be to the GAL.

For instance, if you would like to change your child’s school to a different district but the other parent opposes that would be something to discuss with a GAL. The GAL would then listen to both sides and make their recommendation to the court as to what they believe will be best for the child. If a child is old enough to have an opinion on what they want, the GAL should also disclose the child’s wishes to the court. This does not mean the court or the GAL will conclude that the child’s opinion is in their best interest. They may still recommend something other than what a child would request. The child is not able to make their own legal decisions, so the decision may not reflect their wishes but their opinion should be taken into consideration.

If your child has a GAL, it is important to do your best to provide them with all the facts of the case. It is also helpful to have the documentation and paperwork they may need readily available. Remember, the GAL leans heavily on the adults in the case providing them with the information needed to determine a recommendation for the child. Making a good impression and being helpful to the GAL will allow them to see you are interested in helping the case, not hindering. Keep in mind their job involves collecting facts, not opinions. In cases of custody disputes or placement hearings, the GAL is not there to form opinions on the relationship. Their job is to learn facts about what type of environment each side can provide for the child. You do not want to take up the GAL’s (billable) time with gossip, complaining, or rehashing things that do not pertain to the issue regarding the child’s best interest.

In some cases, a Guardian Ad Litem is assigned to a case that does not involve children. In these cases, they may represent the best interest of an incompetent adult. If an adult is having mental health issues and it is determined that they are unable to make decisions for themselves, they may be assigned a GAL. Other times, if there are legal disputes that involve an adult having medical issues that render them unable to communicate, then a GAL may be appointed to help represent the best interest of the patient. A GAL may also be appointed for an adult with disabilities preventing them from being competent to make their own legal decisions. These decisions could be regarding estates, medical procedures, and finances.

In one of my own experiences, the birth mother of one of my children is mentally ill. While she was not appointed a GAL, she did require help and was appointed an advocate. She had a social worker representative that was required to testify regarding her mental health and competency in making the decision to terminate her parental rights. This worker acted much the way a GAL would have; they gave facts to support her understanding of the situation, as well as facts regarding medications and expectations. Because this birth mother could not properly or safely parent on her own, even while taking all of the medication she required, the social worker agreed that termination of parental rights was the best option. My son’s birth mother had decided to do this voluntarily. If it had been determined that she was incompetent to make this decision on her own, a Child Protective Services worker had put together a strong case for involuntary termination of rights. I felt tremendous relief that the birth mother was able to make the decision for herself, rather than have the decision made for her.

At the beginning of our case, this birth mother was not considered capable or competent to make decisions. She had been taken off many of her required medications to protect the pregnancy. Once she gave birth, her medication was reintroduced to help her gain more awareness and stability. Because of this, my son was appointed a medical guardian. This person was brought into the case to serve as the person who would make medical decisions. She was responsible to give consent for his post-delivery hospital care, as well as infant vaccinations and the medical treatment he needed throughout the process. The Guardian Ad Litem was different in this case and did not do both jobs.

If you are going through any type of court case involving a Guardian Ad Litem, be sure to research the specific laws in your area. While the overall job of a Guardian Ad Litem is to advocate for a child’s best interest, each area has different requirements and qualifications for those who can be appointed to do the job.

 

Jennifer is a mother to 3 children (one biological, two adopted). She is also a mom to numerous pets.  She enjoys volunteering in her children’s classroom, reading, and crafting in her spare time.  She has been married for almost 15 years.


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