Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)
Determining Child Custody
What is a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL)?
A Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) is either an attorney or other qualified professional, such as a mental health professional, appointed by the judge to assist in a domestic relations case concerning a child's custody or welfare. It is the court-appointed GAL's responsibility to assist the court by investigating the background, living conditions, family conditions, and other matters relating to the child or children. They also issue recommendations to the court regarding custody or visitation arrangements.
The Guardian Ad Litem Process
When Is a Guardian Appointed?
GALs are typically appointed in child custody matters when there is serious disagreement regarding which parent would be the most appropriate custodian or primary caretaker for the child or children involved. GALs are also regularly appointed when one party makes serious allegations about the other parent's ability to provide proper care for the child or children. For example, if one party alleges that the other party has sexually or physically abused the child. A GALs appointment will end at the conclusion of the case unless the court orders otherwise.
Who May Serve as a Guardian?
The superior court judge may appoint any person to serve as the GAL as long as that person has received training administered or approved by the Child Advocate's Office. Uniform Superior Court Rule 24.9(1); O.C.G.A. 15-11-9(b). This training should include, but not be limited to recognition and assessment of a child's best interests; methods of obtaining relevant information; recognition of cultural and economic diversity in families and communities; basic child development, needs, and abilities at different ages; family dynamics and dysfunction; recognition of issues of domestic violence, child abuse, and substance abuse; and, available services for child welfare, family preservation, medical, mental health, educational, and special needs, including placement/evaluation/diagnostic treatment services.
What Happens DURING the Investigation Phase?
It is the responsibility of a court-appointed GAL to investigate the background, living conditions, family conditions, and any other matters relating to the child or children. Specifically, they can review all relevant records pertaining to the minor child and their custody determination, conduct on-sight investigations, and request mental health evaluations, if appropriate.
What Happens AFTER the Investigation Phase?
The Reporting Phase. After completing their investigation, GALs are required to file a written report of their findings with the court. The findings will include a factual summary of their investigation. In addition, based upon their findings and knowledge of child welfare, they are to issue recommendations to the court regarding how the court should handle custody.
Can you Contest the GAL's Recommendations?
Although a GAL issues a recommendation, it is NOT the final determination of custody in a case. Either party (or in some cases both parties) is free to contest the findings, reject the recommendations, and proceed with a trial. The GAL is expected to testify at a hearing or trial. At court, the judge is not bound to follow the GAL's recommendations and is free to accept or reject, in whole or in part, the guidance of the GAL.
What Should Parents Expect once a GAL is Appointed?
The GAL is also likely to interview other individuals who have had contact with the child, such as teachers, doctors, parents, and family friends.
Finally, as part of the process of examining the child's home to explore the living conditions of the child, depending upon age, the child may also be interviewed and potentially even asked about their concerns and wishes.