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Words from a Guardian ad Litem - Family Law News

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Family Law News


Posted on: Feb 4, 2015

By Jenna Heavner, GAL Attorney at Kids' Voice of Indiana

So the Court has appointed a Guardian ad Litem (GAL), or a court-appointed special advocate (CASA), to your case…Now what? Perhaps the idea of adding yet another hurdle to your client’s race to finality is frustrating – if not just exasperating. Or, and this is what I would hope, perhaps your client is elated to “finally” have someone involved who will advocate for the children and ensure their voices are being heard. Whatever the reaction, I have a few suggestions as you embark on your journey with the GAL.

Keep us informed!

This should go without saying, but as a reminder, we cannot get started with our investigation without the Court order appointing us as GAL and basic contact information for your client. As an attorney for an involved party, it would be wise for you to ensure the GAL has contact information for your client as soon as possible. It also would be wise for you to go ahead and send any and all Court documents – including pleadings, motions and Court orders – so the GAL has necessary background information to get started right away. 

Most importantly, though, please remember to include the GAL on your distribution list. Besides the mere fact that you should include us – both so we can keep informed and plan our investigation accordingly – truly, you must serve us. Indiana courts have recognized GALs as parties who should be served with Court documents the same way as any other involved parties. See, e.g., Deasy v. Leas v. Leas, 693 N.E. 2d 90, 97 (Ind. Ct App. 1998). On that note, keep in mind that courts have typically allowed GALs to respond to or file their own motions, as well as examine and cross-examine witnesses, too.

Your case is important to us… but we are busy, too!

Sometimes, the Court will appoint a GAL from the bench, and then I immediately receive a phone call from an attorney or litigant asking for a GAL to see the children as soon as possible, even that same day. Or, how about the phone call I receive late Saturday night because a parent has just picked up a child from parenting time, and she wants an immediate GAL visit because the child has been abused by the noncustodial parent?

I’d like to think that those of us with a heart to serve as GAL expect these sorts of phone calls – the panicked, always urgent pleas for immediate attention – and we’re used to getting them. However, I first should note that, if your client is in an emergency situation (i.e., the child has been abused), we are not emergency responders. Your client should call the Department of Child Services (1-800-800-5556) immediately or even 911. Second, please keep in mind your GAL is working feverishly on your client’s case on behalf of the children’s best interests – perhaps on a volunteer basis while working full-time, juggling professional and personal life – and the GAL is busy too! It is incredibly helpful when your client assists the GAL and responds timely to requests, giving the GAL plenty of time and ample opportunity to schedule interviews and gather other helpful information well in advance of court deadlines.

You have the ability to cross-examine the GAL – and you should!

It’s true the courts generally (though not always!) hold the GAL’s opinion in high regard and ultimately adopt the GAL’s recommendations. Our data at Kids’ Voice shows that, at least for cases on which we’ve been appointed, the courts adopt our GAL recommendations more than 80 percent of the time.  With that in mind, once you receive the GAL’s report (which should be well in advance of the hearing date), you may want to engage in a serious conversation with your client about possible settlement.

If your case does go forward for hearing, you will have the ability to cross-examine the GAL – and you should – particularly if the GAL is recommending against your client. Was there potential bias? Did the GAL have the opportunity to observe the children with the opposing party but not your own? Did the GAL contact any collateral references for either party? How many times has the GAL actually seen the children? At Kids’ Voice, all of our assigned GALs have an attorney guiding, advising and collaborating every step of the way, but this is not the case in every situation. Did the GAL actually do a thorough investigation? What should the GAL have done? On a related note, however, a recommendation against your client does not give you or your client permission to berate, personally insult or delve into a GAL’s personal life. Offer the GAL the same respect you would any other professional, and the GAL should offer the same to you and your client.

You should do it, too!

With the start of 2015, attorneys must now report any hours of pro bono service provided pursuant to Rule 6.7 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. What more fulfilling way to provide pro bono hours than that which is for the sake of a child? At Kids’ Voice, we train volunteer GALs from all walks of life. Most are attorneys, but many aren’t. Some are family lawyers, but others aren’t. Some have children, and others don’t. Regardless of backgrounds, both attorneys and community volunteers for Kids’ Voice find GAL service a rewarding and worthwhile way of honing or expanding knowledge and exposure to family law, all while serving the community’s children in a unique and influential way. 

For more information about Kids’ Voice or to register for GAL training, please contact Jenna at jheavner@kidsvoicein.org. The next scheduled all-day GAL training for attorneys is Feb. 16, 2015. 

This post was written by  Jenna Heavner of Kids' Voice of Indiana. If you would like to submit content or write an article for the Family Law Section page, please email Mary Kay Price at mprice@indybar.org.

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