A Guardian ad litem (GAL) is either an attorney or other qualified professional, such as a mental health professional, appointed by the judge to assist in a domestic relations case concerning the custody or welfare of a child. A Superior Court judge may appoint any person to serve as the GAL as long as that person has received training administered or approved by the Office of the Child Advocate. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(1); O.C.G.A. 15-11-9(b).
It is the responsibility of a court-appointed GAL to assist the court and the parents in reaching decisions concerning the custody, visitation and other issues concerning the minor child or children involved in the action. GALs aid the court by investigating the background, living conditions, family conditions, and any other matters relating to the child or children in order to make a recommendation to the court regarding what custody or visitation arrangements would be in the best interest of the child or children involved. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(3).
When Are Guardians Ad Litem (GALs) Appointed?
GALs are normally appointed in child custody matters when there is serious disagreement regarding which parent would be the most appropriate custodian or primary caretaker for the child or children involved. GALs are also regularly appointed when one party makes serious allegations about the ability of the other parent to provide proper care for the child or children.
For example, a GAL is appointed if one party alleges that the other party has sexually or physically abused the child. A GAL’s appointment will terminate when a final disposition is made in the case unless the court orders otherwise. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(3).
What Do GALs Do? What Can Parents Expect Once a GAL Is Appointed?
Once appointed, a Guardian Ad Litem may request all records relating to the minor child maintained by the Clerk of the Court in any county or jurisdiction, other social and human service agencies, the Department of Family and Children Services, and the Juvenile Court. The GAL appointed to a particular case may also examine all records maintained by any school, financial institution, hospital, doctor or other mental health provider, plus any other social or human services agency or financial institution pertaining to the child which are deemed confidential by the service provider.
However, a written release or court order is necessary before a GAL may have access to confidential records. In addition to collecting and reviewing records and documentation concerning the child or children involved, the GAL may also examine the residence of the child, the child herself, and the child’s parents to determine what custodial arrangements may be in the child’s best interest. The GAL may also seek the examination of the child or the parents by a medical or mental health professional, if appropriate and necessary for the GAL to reach a determination. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(4).
After completing their investigation, GALs are required to file a written report of their findings with the court and are also expected to testify at a hearing or trial concerning the custody of welfare of the minor child or children involved. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(5)-(7).
If a GAL is appointed to a case, parents should expect the GAL to interview individuals who have contact with the child, including teachers, doctors, parents and family friends. A GAL’s other responsibilities are to visit the child’s home to examine the living conditions, and speak to the child directly to determine the child’s wishes or concerns.
It is important for parents to be honest and forthcoming with a GAL assigned to their case, as it is the GAL’s responsibility to determine what is in the best interest of the child based on objective evidence. However, if the GAL makes a recommendation against either parent, that parent may controvert the GAL’s recommendation at trial.
Who May Serve as a Guardian? Can the Parents Choose?
Only those individuals who have received training administered or approved by the Office of the Child Advocate may serve as a GAL in a proceeding concerning the custody or welfare of a child.O.C.G.A. 15-11-9(b). A GAL shall receive such training as provided by or approved by the Circuit in which the GAL serves.
This training should include, but not be limited to, instruction in the following subjects: domestic relations law and procedure, including the appropriate standard to be applied in the case; domestic relations courtroom procedure; role, duties, and responsibilities of a GAL; recognition and assessment of a child’s best interests; methods of performing a child custody/visitation investigation; methods of obtaining relevant information concerning a child’s best interest; the ethical obligations of a GAL, including the relationship between the GAL and counsel, the GAL and the child, and the GAL and the court; recognition of cultural and economic diversity in families and communities; basic child development, needs, and abilities at different ages; interviewing techniques; communicating with children; family dynamics and dysfunction, domestic violence and substance abuse; recognition of issues of child abuse; and available services for child welfare, family preservation, medical, mental health, educational, and special needs, including placement/evaluation/diagnostic treatment services. 24.9(2).
Who Pays for the GAL’s Fees and Expenses?
Similar to attorneys and other professionals, GALs also must be compensated for their time. It is within the court’s discretion to determine the amount of fees that may be awarded to the GAL and how the payment of the fees will be shared between the parents. Normally, especially if the guardian appointed is an attorney, the guardian is compensated according to his or her normal hourly rate. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(8).