A guardian ad litem is neutral third-party appointed by the court to act as the voice for the child(ren) involved in a family or juvenile court proceeding. In the context of a divorce, child custody, or post decree matter, a guardian ad litem, or GAL, has a primary duty to investigate and make recommendations to the Court as to what outcome they believe will serve the best interest of the child(ren). These recommendations can include which parent(s) will have legal and physical custody, what parenting time schedule should be exercised, and whether the parents or child(ren) should participate in therapy or psychological testing. The GAL’s recommendations are not controlling, but will be given great weight by the Court when making a final determination of the matter.
What Does a GAL Do?
Once a GAL is appointed, Minnesota Statutes and Rules direct the GAL to “protect the interest of the minor” but give little to no direction on how to best accomplish this. Thus there is some variance on how any particular GAL program may to go about executing their duty. To determine the best interests of the child(ren), a GAL will need to become familiar with the child(ren), the child(ren)’s parents, and the child(ren)’s environments. To do so, the GAL will mostly likely schedule home visits to get to know the family and to better understand the families’ dynamics, lifestyle, routines, personalities, and attitudes. If the parents reside together, the GAL may interview them together and/or separately. The GAL may also interview the child if he or she sees fit. Depending on the child(ren)’s age these interviews may take place at the child(ren)’s school or in their home. Interviews of the child(ren) may take place with and/or without out the parents present.
In addition to interviewing the child(ren)’s immediate family, the GAL may also speak with the child(ren)’s relatives, teachers, counselors, therapists, and any person with whom the child(ren) spends a significant amount of time. The GAL may also review documentation such as therapy notes, medical records, school report cards, and court records to obtain additional information as they deem relevant. Through this process, a more comprehensive picture into the child(ren)’s life can be gleaned.
Following the investigative process, the GAL submits a written, and in some cases, an oral report to the court. The report often includes a detailed record of the interviews conducted, the documents and evidence reviewed, and of course the interim or final recommendations. These reports may include recommendations on temporary or permanent custody labels, temporary or permanent parenting time schedules, recommendations for services for the parties and the minor child(ren) such as mental health, chemical dependency, and domestic abuse services.
What Are a GAL’s Qualifications?
Minnesota law requires that the GAL meets a minimum level of qualifications to be appointed. The GAL must have a BA or BS in psychology, social work, education, nursing, law, or child-related discipline OR have an equivalent combination of training, education, or experience. The GAL must also fulfill the following:
- A thorough screening and interview process;
- Complete a minimum of forty-hours of training approved by the State GAL Board;
- Domestic and family violence training within the first year of service; and
- Continuing education requirements.
When Is a GAL Appointed to a Case?
In family law matters, Minnesota Statute 518.165 provides two types of GAL appointments: mandatory and permissive.
In cases where the court has reason to believe that the minor child(ren) is a victim of domestic child abuse or neglect, as those terms are defined in sections 260C.007 and 626.556, respectively, the court is required to appoint a GAL. The following are examples of allegations that are likely to trigger a mandatory GAL appointment:
- Allegations of physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse;
- Chemical Dependency issues of the parents that adversely affect the minor child(ren);
- Neglecting to provide the minor child(ren) with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, or other required care for the child’s physical or mental health
In all other cases where the above standard is not met, the court is permitted to, but is not mandated to appoint a GAL. A court may make a permissive appointment if it has reason to conclude that the child’s interests are not being expressed sufficiently by the parties, or if it appears as though the parent or guardian is hostile or indifferent to the child’s interests. Due to state funding issues and the immense workload created by mandatory appointments, permissive appointments are rare.
How to Prepare Your Case
The Courts place a great deal of weight on the GAL’s recommendation report, so it is crucial to make sure you are well-prepared if a GAL is appointed to your case. For that reason it is essential to work with an experienced family law attorney.