Are GALs Really Focused on the Best Interests of Children?

A response to a recent Co-Parent Dilemmas podcast episode

Debra Finch, attorney and guardian ad litem

I recently listened to Diane Dierks’ and Rick Voyles’ podcast called Co-Parent Dilemmas – specifically the episode about Guardians ad litem and whether or not they are truly acting in the best interests of children. I thought some of the criticism was fair. But the focus was on the “bad” GAL, and not the ones who have a positive impact on families and, most importantly, children. Just like with therapists and lawyers, there are poorly trained GALs.  But there are reasons why a GAL might be necessary or helpful in a contested custody case. A few points I think are important to consider are:

1.   The investigatory power of a GAL is great and often includes a review of DFCS records, medical records, police records, in addition to witness interviews (therapists, doctors, teachers, etc.)  and, of course, parent and child interviews.  Some of these investigations are complex (like factitious disorder by proxy, sexual abuse, false sexual abuse allegations, etc.).  In complex cases, a GAL must/should interview all necessary witnesses and review all relevant records (school, medical, DFCS, law enforcement) to discover the truth of what has happened. I recently reviewed over 10,000 pages of medical records in a suspected Munchausen/factitious disorder case and discovered evidence that the parents and their attorneys were unaware of. I will take that information and summarize it for a judge who likely would not have the time or inclination to review those same records at that same level (not to mention the time delay it would cause for the Courts and the further expense for a client to sit through a lengthy trial with multiple witnesses, records, etc.).   

2.  A good GAL can educate the Court and the parties about how to respond to issues like parental alienation.  A good GAL can also recognize when a parent is getting some bad advice from other professionals. A good GAL can also recommend that the children and/or the parties see a therapist or that a parent use Soberlink or Our Family Wizard.

3.  A good GAL can intervene for the children in emergency matters. Because he/she is an appointed GAL without a vested interest in the outcome, the Courts tend to take those requests seriously and will act immediately. 

4.   A couple of times it was mentioned in the show that perhaps complaining to the State Bar might be appropriate for a wayward GAL.  As was mentioned, there is no requirement that a GAL is a member of the bar.  Yes, I have seen Superior Court Judges appoint non-attorney GALs in custody cases. It is not that common, but it does happen. The role of the GAL is not serving as an attorney. The State Bar does not govern the work of the GAL. There is a child advocacy section of the State Bar, however, it deals more with juvenile court advocacy. There is a training requirement for GALs, but it is minimal. If an attorney wants to do GAL work, they need to know about resist/refuse dynamics, personality disorders, IEPs and 504s, and what resources are available (parent coordination, therapists, drug testing, Soberlink, etc.) to help families. They also need to be a good investigator.  

5. What can a party do if they have a GAL who is not doing his/her job?  Have your attorney check in with the GAL. Make sure you give the GAL a list of people you think are important to talk to, and their contact information, and tell the GAL why it is important. Put it in writing. If the GAL has not called your witnesses (like the caller described on the podcast episode), then have the witnesses call the GAL.   

When I first started doing GAL work many years ago, there was very little guidance. I had to educate myself through CLEs, trusted mentors, and with help from organizations such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.  

I walk into homes and meet with parents and children who are stressed. I’ve had parents threaten physical harm to me, and I’ve had parents harm themselves.  I do not believe most GALs do this for the money. It would be cost-prohibitive to bill for ALL the time spent in a case, the emails, the holiday emergencies, etc.   

I cannot tell you how thrilled I am about the work the Center for Navigating Family Change in Atlanta is doing, including the podcast and the recent advanced training and retreat in St. Simons. If we work together (and develop expertise), we can make positive change in families.

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