Child custody in Connecticut and New York can be difficult for families, especially when the matter becomes contentious. In some situations, a guardian ad litem may be appointed. Many families don’t know what a guardian ad litem is or what they do before one is assigned to their case. Instead, you should know ahead of time what to expect when working with a guardian ad litem. Keep reading for more information.
What Is a Guardian Ad Litem?
A “guardian ad litem,” or GAL, is a lawyer appointed by a family court to explore which options are in a child’s best interests. A GAL investigates the family’s unique circumstances and then makes recommendations to the court based on what would best protect the wellbeing of the child. These issues may include reporting substance abuse issues or domestic violence to the court, unfit living conditions, parental abuse or neglect, and other matters the court ought to be aware of in order to make the best informed decisions for the child.
What Will a GAL Do In a Child Custody Case?
What a guardian ad litem does differs from case to case and largely depends on what the judge has specifically ordered the GAL to investigate. In some scenarios, the order could be quite broad and allow a GAL to review a child’s overall circumstances and make any recommendations they see fit.
However, courts more frequently appoint a guardian ad litem for a limited purpose, such as if one parent is abusing drugs or alcohol or if a parent has the mental fitness to have unsupervised visitation of a child. A GAL may ask to talk with a child’s babysitters, daycare workers, teachers, friends’ parents, religious figures, and other individuals who may be able to provide an accurate look into a child’s situation.
Tips for Interacting With a Guardian Ad Litem
Make a Good First Impression
First impressions most certainly count when it comes to interacting and working with a GAL. The GAL will be making assumptions about you from the moment you meet them based on things like how you’re dressed, your personal hygiene, your attitude and manner of speaking, and the way you carry yourself. When they come to your home, they will be inspecting the state of your home and if your child has access to personal hygiene products, their own bed with clean linens, privacy, education, nutrition, clean clothing, and other basic necessities.
Do: Tidy up around the house and make sure there are no dirty clothes or dishes with food on them laying around. Take out the trash and clean up after pets.
Don’t: Tackle that big reorganization project you’ve been planning or scrub the toilet grout with a toothbrush. You don’t need to repaint your picket fence white to make it past the scrutiny of a GAL.
Be Accessible and Communicate Regularly
You should make sure that you are available to your GAL during reasonable hours and that you communicate often with them about matters related to your case. Often, GALs see questions and interest in a case as a positive thing, because it illustrates that the parents want to work with the person ensuring the welfare and best interests of their child.
Do: Make sure your guardian ad litem has a good phone number and email to reach you. Answer the phone when they call or reply to their emails within a reasonable timeframe. Never leave your GAL to be the last one to communicate.
Don’t: Change your phone number and forget to update your GAL or dodge calls until you just don’t have an excuse anymore. Your guardian ad litem can tell the difference between being busy or hard to get ahold of and being avoided.
Be Honest But Don’t Offer More Information Than Necessary
It’s important that you don’t lie to a GAL. If you are caught offering information that you knew at the time to be untruthful, this can be used against you later. It may even potentially cost you custody or visitation time with your children depending on the circumstances. However, it’s also crucial to avoid offering more information than the GAL needs.
First, too much information may overwhelm the guardian ad litem and make the case more difficult for them. Second, you may accidentally give out information that casts you in a bad light, which gives both the GAL and your ex ammunition against you that they may not have otherwise had or were able to access.
Do: Answer questions with simple yes or no answers whenever possible. Try not to elaborate with answers like, “yes, but . . .,” etc. If the GAL asks specific questions that require you to give longer answers, don’t be afraid to take a minute to think about what you’ll say. It’s better to have given pause before answering than to answer too quickly and give information that paints you negatively.
Don’t: Elaborate on a topic you don’t have to give information on. Avoid getting chatty with the guardian ad litem and if they seem friendly, return the gesture but don’t assume they actually are your friend. Their purpose is to advocate for the best interests of your children, regardless of what they think or how they feel about you.
Never Coach Your Children On What to Say
The GAL is looking to observe your children in their home environment and how they engage with you and the other people living in the home. They look for indicators that a parent or a home situation may not be serving the child’s best interests and expect to be able to do so without interference from a parent. If you coach your kids on what to say or do in the guardian ad litem’s presence, this is likely to be looked at unfavorably by a judge later on.
Do: Let your kids know what’s going on. Your children need to know the basics about what a GAL is and what they can expect from this person. Tell them when the GAL will arrive, what they will do while at your home, and when they will leave. Answer any questions your children have in an age-appropriate way.
Don’t: Tell your children what they should say to the GAL. Even when done innocuously, like suggesting that the children say please and thank you with the common phrase, “what do we say?” can make you appear as though you are coaching your children on how to act.
Make Sure Guardian Ad Litem Fees Are Paid to Date
Having a guardian ad litem appointed to your case often results in additional costs. You may be responsible for paying some or all of the fees for your guardian ad litem. It’s crucial that these are paid and remain paid to date. Failure to pay for your guardian ad litem can be problematic in many ways and in some cases, you may face a penalty if you do not meet your financial obligation.
Do: Pay the fees you owe on time or early, and get a copy of the receipt for your legal records. Let the court know if you are facing financial hardship and need help with your guardian ad litem fees.
Don’t: Miss payments or pay late if it’s not the result of extenuating circumstances. Don’t avoid your guardian ad litem if you are late on payments.
Keep Your Appointments
It’s crucial to attend all appointments scheduled with your guardian ad litem. If your children should be present, be sure to bring them to the appointment. If the guardian ad litem is coming to your home, which is often the case, make sure that you will be home at the time the guardian ad litem will be arriving. Answer the door promptly and treat the time as if you would an appointment scheduled with a professional outside your home.
Do: Arrive to your appointments on-time or early. If you’re running late, send a message explaining why and make sure it doesn’t become habitual. If you need to cancel an appointment, do so with as much advance notice as possible depending on the reason for the cancellation.
Don’t: Miss appointments with your guardian ad litem without calling and giving an explanation. Avoid missing appointments for reasons that aren’t absolute emergencies; if you can reschedule something else that conflicts with an appointment with your guardian ad litem, consider doing that first.
Get Help Working With a Guardian Ad Litem From an Experienced Family Law Attorney
The most important thing you can do when involved in a child custody case is to reach out for help from an experienced family law attorney. Your lawyer can be an advocate for you and your children and can help you navigate the entire child custody process, along with related issues like paternity and child support. If a guardian ad litem is assigned to your case, your lawyer will help you communicate with them and can advise you on how best to protect your rights and your family’s best interests when working with someone like a guardian ad litem or even a social worker or Child Protective Services (CPS) agent.
Heidi Opinsky is a veteran family lawyer with the skills and expertise needed to provide you with comprehensive legal support during your child custody case, regardless of which side of the matter you are on. Call today to schedule your initial consultation by dialing 203-653-3542. Or, fill out the simple online contact form here and we’ll get back with you as quickly as possible.