The Important Role of a Guardian ad Litem in Child-Related Matters

Legal matters pertaining to children are incredibly difficult for everyone involved. These types of cases are intensely personal, and their sensitive nature can make it hard for parents to stay focused on serving their children’s best interests. A parent’s judgment and decision-making can easily be affected by bitterness, anger, or resentment toward the other parent. Unfortunately, this loss of focus can lead to a situation in which the entire case becomes a competition between the parents—often at the expense of the children.

Under Illinois law, the presiding judge in any family law case has the authority to appoint a separate attorney to serve in one of three roles and to help facilitate a resolution. The appointee may serve as an “attorney for the child,” “child representative,” or “guardian ad litem.” In many Illinois counties, a guardian ad litem is the most common of the three.

Trained Attorneys

Attorneys for the child, guardians ad litem, and child representatives have a few important things in common. First, any individual appointed to serve in one of these roles must be a licensed attorney who is not already involved in the case. In order to be eligible for selection, an attorney must undergo specialized continuing training related to:

  • Child development
  • Ethics in child custody cases
  • Relevant state and federal statutes related to custody and visitation
  • Relevant case law
  • Family dynamics, including mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence

The attorney must also be certified by the county court as eligible to be appointed. Each county maintains a regularly updated list of eligible attorneys from which the judge may choose.

Understanding Each Role

The judge has the option of appointing an eligible attorney to serve in one of three capacities, and each role could affect the case differently. Let’s take a closer look at each:

  • Attorney for the child: The attorney for the child is just what it sounds like. The appointed attorney will serve as the child’s counsel for the case. This means that the attorney is required to do what the child requests, just as any lawyer would for an adult client. For this reason, this option is rarely used by the courts.
  • Guardian ad litem: We will get into greater detail later, but the guardian ad litem acts as an extension of the court with the power to investigate the circumstances of the case. Based on the outcome of the investigation, the guardian ad litem will prepare a recommendation and present it to the court as expert witness testimony. The guardian ad litem does not represent either parent or the child. Instead, he or she works on behalf of the court.
  • Child representative: The child representative also has the authority to investigate the circumstances of the case, but instead of presenting a recommendation the way an expert witness would, the child representative builds a case as if the best interests of the child were a third party in the proceedings. The child representative may participate in all hearings, conferences, and other negotiations to help the parties resolve the matter.

In some counties, courts will appoint child representatives, but more often than not, if an appointment is made, the attorney will serve as a guardian ad litem.

What Does the Guardian ad Litem Do?

According to Illinois law, the court can appoint a guardian ad litem, or GAL, on its own or following a request by either party in a proceeding related to child custody, visitation, parental rights, adoption, or any other child-related matter. If the court appoints a guardian ad litem, it is likely because the parties in the case were having trouble—or anticipated trouble—in resolving their issues amicably.

By making the appointment, the court also recognizes that it will need a great deal of information in order to make a decision that protects the child’s best interests. Of course, each parent will have the opportunity to make his or her case during the proceedings, but human nature tends to take over, which means that a parent is only likely to provide information that paints him or her in the best possible light. As a result, the court only gets, at best, two partial versions of the circumstances at hand, neither of which is objective.

When a guardian ad litem gets involved, however, things are different. The GAL has the authority to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the family’s situation. As part of the investigation, the GAL may visit each parent’s home and observe interactions between the parent and the child. In addition, the GAL can interview each parent, as well as the child, to gain a full understanding of the family dynamics. The GAL can also talk to teachers, coaches, and anyone else whose input may be useful. The guardian ad litem will also review each any relevant financial documents, court records, and other paperwork that could shed light on the case. For example, if charges related to domestic abuse were filed and dropped, the GAL would carefully review the arrest records and related statements to determine the extent of any possible danger to the child.

The Recommendation

Once the GAL has completed the investigation, he or she is required to prepare a report for the court that includes the GAL’s recommendation regarding the outcome of the case. If the case were a custody dispute, for example, the GAL’s report would include the custody arrangement that the GAL believes would best serve the child’s needs. Depending on the situation, the recommendation may be submitted in writing or orally in open court.

For the purposes of the proceedings, the recommendation and report are treated as the opinion of an expert witness, which means they are subject to cross-examination by the attorneys for the parents. The lawyers can also challenge the GAL’s methods in investigating the case and preparing the recommendation.

It is important to keep in mind that the court is statutorily expected to give a great deal of weight to the GAL’s recommendation. After all, the whole purpose of appointing a guardian ad litem was to get his or her trained opinion after a full investigation. This does not mean that the court must agree 100% with the GAL, but it is likely that the court will accept most of what the GAL recommends.

Get the Help You Need

If a guardian ad litem has been appointed in your child-related case, or you believe that one should be appointed, it is important to understand what that means for your case. Contact an experienced DuPage County family law attorney to learnmore. Your lawyer can help you work with the GAL so that your child’s best interests are fully protected without compromising your parental rights.

Author Bio :

Tricia D. Goostree knew she wanted to be an attorney when she was 10 years old. After being accepted to the John Marshall Law School with a Dean’s Scholarship, Tricia added excellent writing skills to her love of working in the courtroom. Tricia is the founder and managing partner of the DuPage County family law attorney Goostree Law Group, P.C. in St. Charles, Illinois.

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