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Vol. 3, No. 2 • Spring 1999

The Role of the Guardian
ad Litem

by John McMahon

The Guardian ad Litem Program is an important
component of North Carolina’s efforts to protect children
and ensure that every child in our state has a safe, nurturing, permanent home. Because their interests closely coincide, guardians ad litem (GALs) often interact with foster parents DSS social workers.

Despite the frequency of their contact with them, some foster parents are not entirely clear about the purpose of guardians ad litem. They wonder: Who do GALs work for? What is their role in court? What is it, exactly, they do?

Guardian ad Litem Program
The GAL program, which is run through the Administrative Office of the Courts, exists to provide trained, independent advocates to represent and promote the best interest of abused, neglected, and dependent children. To fulfill this mission, the GAL program recruits, screens, and trains volunteers to gather and present facts to the court in every abuse and neglect case in North Carolina. In 1996 more than 3,400 GAL volunteers were involved in the cases of more than 17,000 children (Nelson, 1997).

Who are GALs?
Anyone with a sincere concern for children can apply to become a GAL. In addition to a written application and a personal interview, applicants must undergo a criminal record check. The volunteer must then complete 24 hours of training, which may include court observation. The training prospective GALs receive emphasizes that every case is different and that as they reach out to each new person, GALs must remain neutral, calm, objective, and respectful.

GALs are appointed for two years, but appointments may be extended. GALs are supervised by professional program staff.

What do they do?
Whenever social services files a petition with the courts alleging that a child is abused or neglected, the court must appoint a GAL to represent the child’s interests in the proceeding. If the GAL is not an attorney, the court also must appoint an attorney to work with the GAL to represent the child’s legal interests. In dependency cases the judge is not required to, but may, appoint a GAL and attorney advocate for the child.

A GAL’s overall duty is to protect and promote the child’s best interests. He or she is responsible for

  • investigating to determine the facts, the child’s needs, and resources available in the family and community;
  • recommending services and interventions that would ensure the child’s safety and that children who have been removed from their homes will be in a permanent home as soon as possible; and
  • offering evidence and examining witnesses in court (Mason, 1996).

Within these broad functions GALs have a lot of latitude with regard to how they gather information. Some spend a lot of time talking with foster parents, foster children, teachers, etc., while others find out what they need to know without so much personal contact. Some want to be a part of the child’s life, others see their role as that of an objective third party who monitors the provision of services to the child.

That said, in the pursuit of their duties most GALs will probably

  • visit the child;
  • ensure the child’s wishes are known to the court;
  • interview parents, guardians, foster parents, or other caretakers;
  • interview the social worker and other service providers and review records related to the family;
  • seek cooperative solutions with other participants in the child’s case;
  • prepare written reports for court hearings;
  • attend and participate in court hearings and other related meetings;
  • testify, if needed, to inform the court of changes in the child’s situation;
  • keep all records and information confidential;
  • monitor provisions of service plans and court orders;
  • explain the role of the GAL and, for every child of sufficient age to understand, keep the child informed of all aspects of the court proceedings;
  • consult with local GAL program staff for support and guidance; and
  • advocate for the child in the community.

Confidentiality
Usually the court order appointing the GAL authorizes him or her to demand any information or reports he or she considers relevant to the case. Whenever a GAL exercises this authority, he or she should present the court order that contains that authorization. The person or agency from whom information is sought may want a copy of the order. The GAL must protect the confidentiality of any information he or she receives (Mason, 1996).

A medical or mental health provider, a school, or any other agency or professional from whom a guardian ad litem seeks information should provide the information promptly, unless the GAL does not have a court order authorizing him or her to demand confidential information or federal law or regulations prohibit disclosure of the information (Mason, 1996).

What makes a good GAL?
So far we have explored how the guardian ad litem fits into the picture for foster children, including many things that he or she either can or must do in the course of duty. Yet, what does it look like when a GAL is doing his or her job well?

To get an answer to this question, I spoke with Lynne Wentworth, a member of the Orange/Chatham (North Carolina counties) GAL program’s professional staff. When I asked her how she knew when someone was successful as a GAL, she said, “One of the things we look for is the degree to which they are informed. If a social worker calls me and tells me that a child fell apart at school today and I call to talk to the child’s GAL, he or she will say, ‘Oh, I already know about that’ or at least have a sense that things were unsettled for the child.

“The other thing I look for is feedback from other agencies. If the GAL is good at what he does, then teachers, social workers, and others will describe him as cooperative, accessible, and committed to finding solutions for the child.

“Because we’re in a neutral position in this drama that takes place in the court, there is a lot of opportunity for the GAL to come across both as a mediator and as a know it all. But, the bottom line is that, many times, what GALs say carries a lot of weight with the judge.”

Sources

Mason, J. (1996). Reporting child abuse and neglect in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: Institute for Government, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Nelson, I. (1997). Unpublished monograph. Raleigh, NC: Author

NC Division of Social Services. (1998). Understanding foster care: A handbook for parents. Raleigh, NC: Author.

NC Guardian ad Litem Program. (1998). Recruitment flyer.

Wentworth, L. (1998). Telephone interview. Asheville, NC.

Copyright © 2000 Jordan Institute for Families