What Does a Guardian ad Litem Do?

Ohio law says that child custody matters, also known as the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities, are to be decided based on “the best interest of the child.” But who decides what is in a child’s best interest? Ultimately, that decision is up to the judge in the case if the parents cannot reach an agreement. The court will receive evidence from the parents and their attorneys, but often it is helpful for the judge to hear from someone without a stake in the outcome of the case—a guardian ad litem.

The term “ad litem” means “for the purposes of the suit,” and it is the role of the guardian ad litem to make recommendations in the case about what would be in the child’s best interest. While judges are deeply committed to making good decisions for children, they simply do not have the time or resources to thoroughly investigate the facts of each case. A guardian ad litem, or GAL, is able to take a deeper look at a family’s situation and make recommendations to the court.

Do All Child Cases Need a Guardian ad Litem?

A GAL is not required in every case concerning parenting issues. However, there are some circumstances in which a GAL’s involvement is called for, such as where the interests of a parent and child may conflict, if there are allegations of abuse or neglect, when parents are in high conflict, or simply if the court believes that a GAL’s involvement is necessary for a fair hearing or helpful to the parents to resolve their issues. The parents or parties involved in a case can also ask the court to appoint a GAL.

Some parents are opposed to the appointment of a guardian ad litem in their case because they think that it reflects negatively on their parenting. In reality, the GAL’s goal should be the same as the parent’s: to give the court all the information it needs to do what’s best for the child.

Who Can Serve as a Guardian ad Litem?

Guardians ad litem tend to be attorneys, often family law attorneys, and social workers. All GALs need to go through training through the Ohio CASA/GAL Service Association or the Ohio Supreme Court.

However, there is no requirement that a GAL be an attorney. If a non-attorney is appointed as a guardian ad litem in a case, however, an attorney may be appointed for the GAL.

What are a Guardian ad Litem’s Responsibilities?

The guardian ad litem’s basic responsibility is to help the court determine what outcome would be in a child’s best interest in a court case such as a child custody (parenting) or juvenile legal custody matter, and often whether the child would be better served with parents having shared parenting. In order to do that, the GAL conducts an investigation and makes recommendations to the court. The court is not obligated to follow the GAL’s recommendations, but typically gives them significant weight.

What does a GAL’s involvement in a case mean in practical terms for parents and children? Here’s what to expect if the judge in your case appoints a GAL. You will probably have a meeting at the GAL’s office at which you will have a conversation about parenting issues present in the case. You may also be requested to complete an intake form before that first meeting. Although this may seem like a formality, any opportunity you have to interact with the GAL is an opportunity to form an impression, either positive or negative. Be yourself, and above all, be honest, but be mindful that you are being evaluated. Put your best foot forward.

After the initial meeting, the GAL will continue to gather information. They will meet with you and your child together at your home, and also with the other party and the child to observe the environment and interactions between each of you and your child.  At some point, the GAL will also want to meet alone with your child to allow the child to answer questions freely, without the pressure a parent’s presence can create. The GAL may go to your child’s school to meet with the child, or to gather information such as report cards and attendance records. The GAL will take into account your child’s preferences regarding custody, but they are not required to advocate for the child’s preference. Their role is to advise the court, not argue for your child’s wishes.

The guardian ad litem will also gather information from other sources. They will look at the documents you have filed in your court case, as well as your child’s school, mental health, and medical records. If Child Protective Services (CPS) has been involved with the family, they will review those records. They may speak to other adults who regularly interact with your child, like teachers, neighbors, coaches, troop leaders, relatives, and clergy. If a parent or member of the household has been involved with the criminal justice system, the GAL may review those records, too, especially if there is a risk of danger to the child.

In short, the GAL is trying to get a full picture of what your child’s life is like: how they live, who cares for them, what their relationships are like. Once they have completed their investigation, the GAL will prepare a report of findings with recommendations for the court. Once again, it’s worth emphasizing that while the court has ultimate discretion in parenting rights cases, whether sole or shared parenting, or legal custody in Juvenile cases, the judge often leans very heavily on the GAL’s recommendations in making a decision.

What Should I Do if a GAL is Appointed in my Case?

While you want to make a positive impression on the GAL, understand that you don’t need to be a perfect parent, just one who prioritizes the child’s needs. Communication with the GAL should be clear, and if a request for a release or for information is made of you, you should respond quickly. You should be honest and forthright with a GAL, and explain why you have taken the position you have in the court case regarding parenting issues, always centering your thoughts about what is in your child’s best interests. If you don’t have an attorney in your case, you might want to get one if the court appoints a guardian ad litem. An experienced Ohio family law attorney can help you understand what to expect from the process and how best to interact with the GAL.

If you have more questions about what a guardian ad litem does and what it means for your custody case, contact Melissa Graham-Hurd and Associates to schedule a consultation.