Q&A with Sodoma Law Divorce Attorney Chelsea Gajewski
What is a Guardian ad litem?
A Guardian ad litem (GAL) is an objective, impartial person who has a duty to protect the best interests of children. In North Carolina, GALs are typically attorneys with family law experience. Children are defined as any child under the age of 18 and not emancipated.
When is a Guardian ad Litem Appointed?
A GAL is typically appointed in legal cases involving divorce and custody. They are similar to a “best interest attorney” in that their role in custody cases is to focus on ensuring the “best interests” of the children are met. Our case law defines the best interest standard as one that requires the court to determine the environment that will “best encourage full development of the child’s physical, mental, emotional, moral and physical faculties.” In re Pearl, 305 NC 640 (1982). In highly contested custody proceedings, the court may appoint a GAL to represent the children. More specifically, there are four instances where a GAL may be appointed in a custody case:
- Are there allegations of child abuse or neglect?
- Do the parents not agree on custody of the children?
- Does one of the parents request the appointment of a GAL?
- Do both parents agree that a GAL should be appointed?
What Role Does a Guardian ad Litem Play in a Custody Case?
When a GAL is appointed in a custody case, he or she will likely speak to both parents, the children, and any collateral witnesses, such as other family members, teachers, coaches, etc. in order to gather all the information needed to make an informed decision as to what is best for the child. A GAL will take many factors into consideration prior to forming an opinion. Those considerations may include the child’s comfort level with each parent, the child’s behavior toward each parent, how or whether the parents co-parent, etc. GALs should place optimal effort into understanding what is in the best interests of the child, which is paramount in custody and divorce cases. The courts rely on this information in order to make a determination on the issue of custody as set forth below.
Why are Guardian ad Litems Helpful?
While having another party involved in your case may not sound ideal, GALs can be an exceptional resource that help the court when it comes to making decisions for minor children and that may even be able to be a “voice” for your child. Where a judge reviews documents and hears testimony from witnesses, a GAL has time to build relationships with the parents, child, and other individuals in the child’s life to help aid in making the best decision possible. GAL involvement is not limited to a day or two in court (which is more than most judges are able to allot), they are the “eyes and ears” on the ground. The GAL’s priority is to determine what is truly best for the minor children in an objective manner after taking as many considerations into account as possible.
When you have a GAL assigned to your case, you have someone who is dedicated to taking the time to get to know you, the other parent, the children and other important people who help shape the minor children’s lives. After the GAL conducts his or her research and interviews, an opinion will be shared to the parents’ attorneys and the court. With the help of a GAL, the parties may even be able to resolve their custody case outside of the courtroom, but if not, the GAL will be at the final hearing.
What Have You Learned as a Guardian ad Litem?
Through my involvement as a Council for Children’s Rights Volunteer Attorney and the Guardian ad litem’s office of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, I have been extremely honored to represent children involved in custody cases. Helping families navigate the custody and divorce process is my passion. It is both a fulfilling and eye-opening venture to serve as a GAL. I believe it is important that each child feels like he or she has a voice in cases of custody and divorce but I am able to weigh that voice against all of my collateral research and interviews in order for the best decisions to be made for him or her to have the most successful future.
During my time as a GAL, I have found that when someone other than parents ask for a child’s thoughts, stories, and feelings, that child not only feels important, but they feel included and heard throughout the custody and divorce process. Giving children the ability to speak for themselves allows them to feel empowered and have some sense of control of the situation – a situation that may feel confusing. I have been that anchor in an otherwise chaotic storm – providing comfort, hope and a sense of security.
In many cases, especially contentious ones, a key piece to a successful custody determination is having a neutral third party get to know your child’s life and a GAL should provide that perspective. Every family law and custody case are different, so is every child, which makes having a GAL even more important. Not only does a GAL have the family law background to understand what is going on in the big picture, but a GAL also gets the chance to better understand the intricacies of the families they work with by spending time with the minor child, collateral witnesses, and the parents. If it were up to me, every custody case would be appointed a GAL to ensure that the best interests of the children continue to be met as the family prepares to move forward into their new normal post-divorce.