A Guardian Ad Litem Protects Children’s Interests

A recent trend in the Family and Juvenile Courts has been to appoint guardians ad litem in cases involving minor children.

Q.: What is the difference between a “guardian” and a “guardian ad litem”?

A.: For example, parents are the natural guardians of their minor children, an aunt may be appointed guardian of a minor child who has lost both parents, or a friend may serve as guardian for the property of a temporarily disabled person. A guardian is appointed by the court, and must follow certain procedures, such as providing the court with regular reports, but is not required to have specific training to carry out this role. The guardianship may last for a short time or indefinitely.

The role of a guardian ad litem (sometimes called a “next friend,” or “GAL”) is more specialized than that of a “regular” guardian. A GAL is specifically responsible for protecting the interests of a minor who is in some way involved in a lawsuit, generally only until the legal proceedings are completed. All GALs must have training specific to their role in representing a child’s best interests, though they come from all walks of life (e.g., attorneys, social workers, teachers, business professionals, etc.).

Q.: Who appoints a GAL?

A.: Usually the judge or magistrate will appoint a GAL to serve on a case. In domestic relations cases, where custody of a minor child or children is an issue, the attorneys often will agree that a GAL should be appointed, and will ask the court to appoint one. Similarly, probate and civil division courts will appoint a GAL where the child’s interests in the litigation are potentially contrary to his or her parents’ interests in the matter. When there are several children whose interests need to be protected in a particular case, usually only one GAL is appointed to represent all of the children’s interests. If a conflict arises, then additional GALs may be appointed.

Q.: What kinds of cases utilize GALs?

A.: Any cases involving a child who has been neglected or abused, or is considered dependent (e.g., one whose parents are unable to provide care due to mental or physical illness) will likely result in the appointment of a GAL. Also, GALs may be appointed in cases involving custody disputes between parents or other family members, or in cases involving visitation problems or reunification of parents and children after celebrity sex videos
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Q.: What is the role of a GAL?

A.: A GAL is an independent advocate for the child, and must make recommendations about what is in the child’s best interest.In a custody dispute, the GAL should meet with the child alone in a comfortable setting and also observe the child’s interactions with each parent and any siblings. Also, the GAL should obtain the child’s school records and any pertinent medical or counseling records, and may wish to speak with other parties or professionals who have been involved with the child.

In cases involving allegations of dependency, neglect or abuse of a child, a GAL will review the records and reports surrounding the allegations, meet with the child and parents separately and attend all court hearings. In all cases, GALs must submit written reports to the court regarding their investigation and recommendations. They also may arrange for home visits to any past and possible future residences of the child. They will also accompany the child to speak with a judge or magistrate if an interview is necessary.

Q.: Who may serve as a GAL?

A.: In many jurisdictions, laypersons (sometimes called “court-appointed special advocates,” or “CASAs”) may serve as GALs in dependency, neglect or abuse cases. Attorneys also may serve as GALs on these cases as well as in private custody disputes.

Q.: Can a GAL gain custody of my child?

A.: No.

Q.: Who pays for the GAL’s services?

A.: Most laypersons serving as GALs are volunteers and donate their time to the cases. Attorneys also often agree to serve on a pro bono basis. Some courts have funding that pays for the non-volunteer GALs in dependency, neglect and abuse cases or on cases where the parents are indigent.In private custody disputes, the attorney GAL is paid by the parents in a pro-rated share determined by the court.

Q.: How long does a GAL serve on a case?

A.: For most cases, the GAL serves only a few months until the investigation and legal proceedings have been completed. For other cases, the GAL could serve for a period of years until the child reaches the age of majority. If a case is resolved and reopened at a later time, the same GAL may be reappointed to serve on the new matter.

The information contained herein is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting with one of our attorneys.


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