Courts often appoint individuals called Guardian Ad Litems in custody and parenting time disputes. Initially, most people involved in these disputes are not familiar with these individuals and do not understand their role is in their case. Guardian Ad Litems (“GALs”) are individuals appointed by the Court to look out for a child’s welfare. The goal is to protect the child’s safety and feelings, let the child know he or she is being heard, and ensure that the child is thriving in a safe environment.
The reason GALs are sometimes necessary is rooted in the way judges decide custody and parenting time cases. The standard judges use in Indiana is to determine what is in “the best interests of the child.” While this is a familiar term and nice concept, it is often difficult for a judge to determine what is truly in the best interests of a child, especially in the context of a divorce or post-dissolution proceeding. In a heated dispute between two adults, a child’s needs and desires are easy to overlook. Given this difficulty, the Indiana Legislature saw fit to empower courts to appoint an objective third party to help evaluate children’s best interests. This is the Guardian Ad Litem.
Courts may appoint an attorney, a volunteer, or certain county employees to serve as a GAL. Even though a GAL may be an attorney who also provides legal services to a child, GAL services are not legal services and are intended to help present the best interests of a child to the court. Any party to a case may request the appointment of a GAL or the judge may decide to appoint one on her own. Courts will usually decide to appoint a GAL if the child’s health is endangered, when the child has been abused or neglected, or when the child or the child’s parents are missing.
Once appointed, the GAL investigates, gathers evidence and makes a recommendation to the judge as to what is in the best interest of a child in each specific case. Indiana Code Section 31-9-2-28 charges a GAL with “researching, examining, advocating, facilitating and monitoring” a child’s situation. During the “investigation” a GAL will meet with all parents or guardians involved in the case, as well as the children. Additionally, the GAL will often visit the parents and child at home, review documents and pleadings and meet with other individuals who are involved in the child’s life, including teachers, child care workers, other family members, doctors or counselors. Indiana Code Section 31-33-15-2 grants access to a GAL to obtain all reports relevant to a case and any reports of examinations of the child’s parents or other person responsible for the care of the child. By talking to the child, the influential persons in a child’s life, seeing a child in the home and witnessing the interaction between parent and child, a GAL gains tremendous insight into what truly is best for the child. The GAL is also empowered to present the child’s wishes to the Court, but is always bound to make recommendations in accordance with the child’s best interests, even if this conflicts with what the child desires.
Once the investigation is complete, the GAL will draft a report containing her recommendations and submit it to the Court. Judges are not bound to follow the GAL’s recommendations, but generally give them great consideration when coming to a decision. Additionally, once the Judge has made a decision, she may ask the GAL to help find other services for the child and make sure that all agencies involved are working together for the best interest of the child.
By: Jenny T. White