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What Does A Guardian Ad Litem Do For Children In The Court System?

Wilson Sayre

A Guardian ad Litem is the court-appointed voice of a child when government agencies suspect abuse or neglect. But the GAL program is, on the surface, unusual.

It’s built on a network of solely volunteers who take one case at a time, acting as eyes and ears for kids who are often too young to discerningly use their own. The future of those children is in large part determined by the Guardian ad Litem’s recommendation to the court.

Although the GAL program is held up as an example of what works in child advocacy, it is in a time of transition.

Depending on their circumstances, most kids referred to the Department of Children and Families are appointed a GAL. They're not part of DCF, but ad Litems advocate for the best interests of a child in dependency courts.

Proceedings in this court determine where a child will live. Children may be put in foster care, up for adoption or placed with another family member. The court can also decide to place the child back with a parent if she or he goes through any number of treatment, training, or therapy sessions.

Part of what determines the outcome of that proceeding is the GAL’s recommendation. Because of this semi-legal status, the GAL can talk to teachers, doctors, therapists, family members, case workers or anyone else who may have an impact on the child’s well-being.

Even though they’re only required to visit with the kid once a month — which isn’t a lot considering the gravity of their assignment — many GALs visit more.

A GAL volunteer works with the case manager and a staff lawyer to sort through all the files and interviews, but those case managers and lawyers have dozens of cases. Ad Litems have one case at a time.

But Ad Litems don’t necessarily have any professional training. Though some happen to be lawyers during the day, often these are these are teachers, realtors, and homemakers.

1. Hopeful volunteers fill out a short application showing interest and submit written character references.

2. A staff person interviews each applicant to make sure he or she is suitable for the program.

Credit Wilson Sayre
One of the worksheets given to volunteers in the training class.

3. Volunteers complete 30 hours of class training, which includes lectures, group work and court observation. The training teaches volunteers about the legal process, what kinds of services are available for kids and parents, and tips on how to be culturally sensitive.

A new pilot program, though, is changing the focus of the training to incorporate more hands-on experience. The new training includes self-directed online tutorials, class lectures, and partnering with an experienced GAL on a case.

This change comes in part due to feedback from GALs who felt nervous about taking on their first case without any real-world experience under their belts.

Even though GALs in the future will have a bit more practical training, people like Howard Talenfeld are still concerned about their lack of professional training. Talenfeld is president of an advocacy organization called Florida’s Children First.

“The ideal model is that there be a guardian and lawyer in every case,” he says.

One guardian, one lawyer, one case.  The way it works now, lawyers and caseworkers have a bunch of cases at once.

A lawyer can wade through benefits like Medicaid in ways ad Litems simply aren’t trained in. Additionally, a lawyer can fight against being forced to take certain types of medication, especially for mental illness, in cases where children might not need it.

A new law out of Tallahassee requires that lawyers also be assigned to some of the particularly at-risk kids.

“It sometimes takes extraordinary efforts to figure out a child’s rights in school, a child’s rights through the dependency process," Talenfeld says. "It’s the life of a child that’s at stake."

Over half the states already require some sort of legal representation of abused and neglected kids. According to the ad Litem program, the new law would provide lawyers to about 10 percent of those in the system.

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