Recently, criticism of the state’s guardians ad litem have hit an all-time high. GALs are reportedly withdrawing from their cases left and right, while grievances appear to be mounting. Family court, by definition, is charged with high emotions and children, unfortunately, are at the center of the storm. The GAL is supposed to be a beacon in the dark night, illuminating a path so a child can endure the tumultuous waters of a divorce or custody battle.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
This very issue came up the other day while I camped out in court, waiting for a hearing. I heard a family court judge explaining to countless divorcing couples, unable to come to an agreement over custody and visitation of their children, about the limitations of a guardian ad litem. The judge explained that the best person to decide the child’s future is often their parent. The parents, in most cases, understand their children and, if they can come to an agreement, are the most qualified to make these life-altering decisions.
The judge went on to caution the couples marching through the courtroom that a GAL is an outsider — a third party — coming in to assess, investigate and make recommendations for the couple’s children. Even though they attempt to do the right thing, the judge said, the GAL is still an outsider looking in.
The well-trained GAL has the potential to resolve issues and assist the court and the family in resolving custody and visitation issues. As such, the GAL can be vital to determining a child’s future. I have had the wonderful experience of working with such individuals. They cut through the issues with precision, while remaining balanced and neutral, seeking only one solitary goal and that is the best interest of the child.
Likewise, a GAL that’s not well-trained or not a good match for the profession has the potential to ruin a family, leaving lasting scars and wreckage behind. It is the latter we are concerned with.
The impact a GAL can have is immense. If the guardian makes an incorrect recommendation or assessment, the family, or more importantly, the children, must live with that mistake. There is no recourse and no correction, aside from more litigation. When a family has a problem with a GAL, there is no one to report these issues to, short of filing a grievance. There are no supervisors to which an upset parent can express his or her concerns. Without the supervision and review of a superior, the GAL is left to make life-changing decisions based on 40 hours of training. Without an oversight agency, the GAL can act alone without review, deciding in a vacuum what should occur.
These issues are only ampilified when it comes to cases of domestic violence and child abuse. A GAL who is ignorant or ill-informed regarding the prevalence and evidence of domestic violence or child abuse can unwittingly place a child with a violent and dangerous parent. This commonly occurs through the mechanism of what is called “alienation.”
The scenario goes something like this: The victim/parent makes allegations of domestic violence or child abuse. The offender/parent denies the allegations and makes some of his or her own. The court appoints a GAL to “sort out the issues.” That puts the guardian ad litem in a difficult situation. The GAL is often suspicious of any parent claiming abuse, suspecting that the alleged victim/parent is simply trying to hurt the custody case of the alleged offender/parent. If the GAL doesn’t judge the situation correctly, the alienation attempt might work and the offender/parent might be granted sole custody. The children then must live under the threat of violence. The victim/parent, meanwhile, loses all faith in the system and decides not to report future violence for fear of losing all contact with the children.
These situations leave gaping wounds in the lives of children, the victim/parent and can lead to physical assaults, or, worse. This same situation can occur with allegations of child abuse, forcing a resulting in a child being forced to live in an abusive home.
Simply put, the failure to monitor and evaluate the guardians ad litem in Connecticut makes these situations more common. In other states, the GALs are monitored and supervised, and a struggling GAL can be identified early on. In the current system in Connecticut, an attorney or layperson simply attends six-half day training sessions and then, after that, has the potential to become appointed as a GAL without the safeguards of supervision and monitoring. This leads to getting custody and visitation decisions wrong. When that happens, children get hurt. They deserve better.•
Michelle Cruz, a former Connecticut State Victim Advocate and Massachusetts prosecutor, is now a private practice attorney in Hartford.