Anybody who has ever been involved in a custody/placement dispute in Wisconsin knows that a key person in the process is the Guardian ad Litem (GAL). For the uninitiated, the GAL is a specially trained attorney that is appointed in family cases where there is a parental disagreement over the custody/placement of a minor child or children. GAL's are appointed in other matters as well, but this discussion is limited to the minor child or children custody/placement disagreement. The GAL is charged with advocating for "the best interests of the minor child or children"; this is the re-occurring theme of the GAL appointment.
To carry out his or her duties, the GAL will often interview parents, children, relatives, caregivers, teachers and other relevant persons in the child's life. Often the GAL will seek to review school records, medical records, and mental health or therapy notes for the child or children. When the GAL is through with his or her investigation a report with recommendations about the disagreement will be made to the Court. Court's view the GAL as an independent and unbiased third party and therefore take any GAL recommendation very seriously. The bottom line is that a GAL recommendation is typically a significant factor in how the case resolves.
So, what are some of the re-occurring themes/concerns I hear from GAL's? Here are my top 5 in no particular order:
1. Kid's are not Property. This is seems like a pretty basic tenet, yet parents often proceed as though the child is something to bargain for or trade for. If you treat the child as a commodity you are in trouble. To be clear, this does not mean that trying to work out a resolution to differing opinions as to what is best for the child is a problem; just the opposite, working to resolve problems through compromise can be important. The problem arises when there is a shift from working out legitimate concerns to treating the child like property.
2. Parents Need to Follow the 3 C's: Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate. Did I mention communicate? One of the on-going themes is that parent's do not communicate about important matters and end up hurting each other and the child. Improving respectful communication has a direct positive impact on your child. There is a belief that if you are looking out for the best interests of your child, you will seek to improve communications whenever possible and safe.
3. GAL's are not Going to Micromanage the Problems of the Parents. Many parents and some attorneys will often seek to involve the GAL in every problem that arises, big or small. The reality is that not all problems are created equal and many GAL's have expressed concerns about being drawn into the daily minutia of a case. My experience is that they are typically willing to help when appropriate, but not to micromanage problems. Really it is just the opposite, they want to see parents working out problems in a reasonable and civil manner, especially the small ones.
4. Putting the Child's Best Interests First Means that the Parent May not Get all that He or She Wants. This is a hard one for many parents to fully accept. Parents will often assume positions and defend those positions to the bitter end. The problem is that in the emotionally charged context of a custody/placement dispute, a parent may not be able to objectively assess the situation and though not meaning to, put his or her interests ahead of the child's best interests. Remember to do regular reality checks.
5. Inappropriately Involving the Child in the Process or Trying to Manipulate the Child is not in the Best Interests of the Child. This is another concern I have heard not only from GAL's, but from parents and attorneys. It may be stating the obvious, but a parent who engages in these behaviors is not only putting the child's interests second to his or hers, but is engaging in behavior that is detrimental to the child.
The above represents what I have been hearing from GAL's - how about you? Drop me an email and share your experiences!