I’ve met a lot of foster children over the years. The vast majority of them are there for reasons that I could explain, but never justify. Drugs, neglect and worst of all outright abuse put thousands of children in foster care every year. I could tell war story after heart breaking war story all day, but in the end those children will still end up in foster care. Still others are abused, but are able to escape foster care by landing a placement with a relative. While the case is heard in court, and until the case is closed, somebody will be responsible for watching over these children, listening to them, advocating for them at court and, in general, helping them through a terrible chapter in their lives by protecting their best interests. The person charged with that responsibility is called a Guardian ad litem, or GAL for short.
The GAL is simply the most important player in any family law case. The GAL is appointed to represent the child(ren), and to make recommendations to the court that promote the best interests of the child. Since the overriding consideration of any family or dependency court is to protect the best interests of children, the GAL’s recommendation is usually on point (at least from a policy standpoint). Assuming the GAL has conducted a thorough investigation prior to making a recommendation, the court should lean heavily upon the GAL’s recommendation because the recommendation will presumably promote the goals of the court. Here’s the dark side of that same coin: Elected judges will rarely do something that is counter to a recommendation that presumably is in the best interests of the child. Even with the confidentiality afforded to abuse and neglect cases, a move like that has a higher likelihood of landing that judge in the nightly news if the child is exposed to hazards or injured because he or she ruled against a GAL’s recommendation. Either way, and regardless of the motivation, judges rarely issue orders that oppose the GAL’s recommendation.
GAL’s also command a great deal of respect from the attorneys on the case. Attorneys are often paid a significant sum of money to appear in court to represent the parents, or another party with an interests in custody of a child. Most take great pride in the work they provide, and if they want to improve their odds of a favorable ruling, they will make a sincere effort to persuade the GAL that their client can best promote the child’s best interests. It was always amusing to me how even the most arrogant of attorneys suddenly wanted to become my good friend, and treat me with a new found respect, if I were appointed to represent the children in their family law case.
GALs in Alabama must be certified in order to represent children in abuse or neglect cases in family courts. The certification requirements include a six-hour certification course, and a two-hour annual recertification courses. Not all Florida GALs are certified, but Florida’s certification course includes thirty hours of training. It’s all an improvement as far as I’m concerned since GALs weren’t always certified (that’s a relatively new development, circa 2003).
If you are involved in a case with a GAL, follow their guidance carefully and assist them to do their jobs. They’re there to help, and if you oppose to their participation in the case, the judge will undoubtedly hear about it. GALs submit written reports of the investigation prior to every hearing. Your participation and cooperation will aid the court to reach a fair resolution of your case, and help you immensely in the eye of the court. Most importantly, the child will have a much better chance of being protected because the court will have more information to fashion an order.
Andrew D. Wheeler