Working Effectively With a Guardian ad Litem

by Deborah Zaccaro Hoffman

When involved in cases utilizing a Guardian ad Litem (or “GAL”), it is very important as a parent to work with this individual as effectively as possible to help ensure that the child’s needs are being met and their rights are fully protected throughout the ordeal. A positive relationship with the GAL can only help improve your case and keep it moving forward.

First of all, what is a GAL? A GAL is an attorney who represents the “best interests” of the child when the parties have minor children together and disagree over custody, visitation, or other parenting issues. When one side requests a guardian ad litem, Ohio law requires the Court to appoint one. The Ohio Supreme Court has issued a rule that specifies a GAL’s responsibilities. At a minimum, a guardian ad litem is required to visit the children in their home, interview the children and determine their wishes, observe each parent with the children, review court filings, speak with school and medical personnel and obtain relevant records, and make any recommendations for mental health or substance abuse evaluations that may assist the Court in resolving issues the parties disagree on. Individual counties may have additional requirements.

In order to carry out these functions, a responsible GAL will ask you to sign releases allowing the GAL to communicate with health care providers, the school or daycare, and others. While providing access to personal information can be uncomfortable, signing releases promptly when requested allows your case to proceed more quickly and at less expense to you in the long run. It is important to remember the GAL is obligated to gather a certain amount of information, and if unable to do so may have to resort to mechanisms such as a subpoena or a formal request for discovery, which will result in additional GAL fees and possibly additional attorney fees if your attorney has to respond. The GAL should also ask you for witnesses you wish him or her to interview; providing complete contact information including address, telephone, and email will save time and help your case move forward. These witnesses should have information pertaining to factors affecting the parties’ parenting abilities. The GAL and the Court will be less interested in the reasons for marital or relationship problems between the parents unless they relate to parenting issues. Keeping your focus relevant to parenting abilities will be appreciated as a sign of maturity and capability to separate the conflict between you and your ex from the needs of your children, and will also help your case proceed forward.

What are some characteristics to look for in a GAL? A good guardian ad litem is characterized by having experience with people from many different walks of life, and in particular with people undergoing the stress of a family crisis such as divorce or custody issues. Speaking with an experienced neutral person can be reassuring. Knowledge of child development and interviewing skills are also crucial, particularly the ability to individualize one’s approach with children depending on their age and developmental level. A constructive guardian ad litem does not have an “agenda” that results in an automatic favoring of one side over another, but approaches each case individually. Parties, through their attorneys, can agree to utilize a particular GAL, or one will be selected from a list maintained by the Court.

An experienced GAL can be of significant benefit to your case. After reviewing areas of conflict, the GAL may be able to narrow down the issues and generate solutions neither side may have thought of which can save you aggravation—and legal fees—going forward. A proactive GAL will often draft and circulate a proposed agreement for the parties to consider and modify to suit their needs. Attorneys who often serve as GALs have usually developed time-saving measures that will result in fewer hours being billed to the parties for not having to re-invent the wheel at each step of the case. The GAL will also attempt to keep your children out of the “line of fire” of conflict between the parents and may explicitly ask that the parent not discuss their “side” of the case with their children. While parents in the heat of the moment may be tempted to involve their children in the conflict with the other parent, ultimately, most children will make up their own minds about both parents’ behavior when they grow up, and having involved them may backfire in the long run. This common request from a GAL, not only benefits children, but also helps parents maintain their relationship with their children through a very difficult period.

In conclusion, cooperating effectively with your GAL will drastically help your case and keep the child’s best interests at heart throughout the entire process. While going through difficult family legal situations, there are many advantages to utilizing the services of a GAL. An experienced GAL has the resources and knowledge to help move your case forward through the court system efficiently, protect your child from unnecessary conflict, and craft a solution that works for you and your family as you embark on the next stage of your life.