What is a Guardian ad Litem?

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If you have heard the term Guardian ad Litem and were unsure of its meaning, you are not alone.  A Guardian ad Litem, often referred to as a “GAL,” is an individual who has been appointed by the courts to represent the best interest of a child or mentally incompetent person.  In Missouri, this individual is usually a lawyer, however, the court can designate a court appointed special advocate to assist in the duties of a GAL.  In the St. Louis City area, many of the court appointed special advocates are trained by Voices for Children and assist specifically in the investigation of abuse and neglect cases as well proceedings to terminate a parent/child relationship.  To become a certified Guardian ad Litem, a lawyer is required to complete an initial 8 hours of specialized training followed by 3 hours of training annually.

When is a Guardian ad Litem needed?

A Guardian ad Litem is appointed by the courts in juvenile court matters, family court matters, and domestic relation issues.  Some situations in which GALs are appointed include abuse and neglect cases, divorce proceedings, and child orders of protection.  In Missouri, it is required by law that a GAL be appointed in cases alleging abuse and/or neglect.  GALs may also be appointed by the court if the court finds it necessary to have a GAL assist in the proceedings or if the parties request to have a GAL.

What is the role of a Guardian ad Litem?

Once assigned to a specific case, the role of the GAL is to investigate in order to report to the court what the child’s best interest is and how that will best be served.  A GAL is encouraged to meet with the parents and child and may also converse with the child’s doctors, teachers, caseworkers, counselors, etc.

Through these meetings, interviews and interactions, the GAL is often able to observe the mental, physical, and social well-being of the child and begin to form a basis for a  recommendation for the court.

An additional role of the Guardian ad Litem is to explain to the child the role of the court and what is happening during court proceedings.  To adhere to this requirement, GALs participate in meetings regarding the child inside as well as outside of the court room.

What does “best interest” mean?

The best interest of the child doesn’t always mean what the child wants or what is easiest for the parents.  The best interest of the child recommendation is reached  by the GAL after speaking with many people who have interaction with the child.  The recommendation of the GAL to the court will be carefully formed after taking many factors into account, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be what the parties requested. While GALs can form their own recommendations, they are required to state the opinions of the children they are representing.

The following story illustrates a situation in which a GAL uses the child’s best interest to reach a recommendation for the court, rather than specifically what the child or parent has requested.  A GAL is appointed in a divorce proceeding involving three children.  The children and their mother all meet with the GAL one afternoon.  The GAL speaks to Mom first.  Mom wants all of the children to stay in their respective schools because it is easier for her and Dad to handle transportation.  She recognizes that there may be issues with each school but that the children are generally happy and seem to be doing well.  The GAL then speaks to each child individually.

Thomas is enrolled in the local public grade school.  He speaks eagerly about his teacher and classmates.  He is thriving in the current environment and expresses a desire to stay where he is.  Mom has copies of his report cards and comments from his teachers that make it easy for the GAL to see he is in a place that will continue to nurture his learning and foster his growth

Susie and Patty are twins enrolled in a private school for children with educational disabilities.  Mom brings documentation from the school regarding Susie’s individualized education plan (IEP), but there is not an IEP for Patty.  Mom confirms that Patty does not have an educational disability, but it is easier for them to be enrolled at the same school.

Susie tells the GAL that school is difficult for her and she still feels like she is struggling.  The GAL asks Susie if she would be okay switching to a different school and Susie says that she is comfortable where she is and does not like change.

Patty tells the GAL that while she enjoys going to school with her sister, the work she is receiving is not challenging enough.  Patty indicates that she would like to stay in school with her sister and if that means staying at the private school that is okay with her.

The GAL took the children’s comments into account and began looking at the local public school and the services the school could offer Susie to aid her IEP.  Upon further investigation and after contacting the public school’s special education department and principal, the GAL determined the public middle school is a much better fit for both Susie and Patty.  The school district has more technology and resources available to children with special needs and they also have advance courses that would offer Patty a challenging curriculum.  In the end, the GAL made a determination that it was in the best interest of the twins to move them to a better school, even if it is not the most convenient schooling option, so that the children can reach their full potential and excel scholastically. The GAL then included this determination in his recommendation to the court.

Who pays for the Guardian ad Litem?

In many cases where the judge orders a Guardian ad Litem appointment for the case, the GAL fees are divided evenly between the two parties. Some judges will require both parties to deposit a certain amount of money with the GAL when he/she is first assigned and order payments by both parties throughout the progression of the case.  In Missouri, courts are prohibited from making victims pay GAL fees in adult abuse cases or child orders of protection.

Are you or someone you know in a situation where you feel a Guardian ad Litem should be appointed? Has someone recommended that you have a Guardian ad Litem appointed in your case?  Kathleen Shaul practices solely in the area of family law and has dedicated her career to helping Missouri families. Kathleen and her legal team are available to handle your questions and concerns. Contact us for a consultation.

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