What is a Guardian ad Litem?
A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a trained volunteer who is appointed by the court to advocate for the best interests of an abused or neglected child. In court, the GAL –along with an assigned GAL Program Attorney — serves as an important voice for the child.
Who can be a Guardian ad Litem?
Guardian ad Litem volunteers come from all walks of life and have a variety of professional, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. You must be at least 21 years of age, have a clear criminal background, and have a passion to help children. Other than those minimum requirements, no special education or experience is required.
How will I know what to do?
The Guardian ad Litem offices across the state use a nationally-recognized training program. You will learn all about the court system and your role in it so that you can be confident when you take your first case. Immediately upon graduation, you will be assigned to a team to work your case. That team consists of you (the GAL volunteer), who will focus all of your efforts on the child’s needs; a Staff Social Worker or Volunteer Supervisor, who will help you navigate the child welfare system; and a Program Attorney, who will help you with the legal aspects of your case. This team will work together to make appropriate recommendations for children assigned to you.
Is being a Guardian ad Litem dangerous?
We would never ask you to do anything or go anywhere that makes you feel unsafe or that puts you in danger. Nothing in life is risk free, but we do not believe that working as a GAL volunteer is any more dangerous than living your normal life. We will always recommend that you take reasonable precautions, much as you would when making decisions about yourself and your family. If you are at all uncomfortable with any situation, you can take a social worker, another GAL, staff member, or police officer on a home visit if you need to. You can also arrange meetings in public places.
I work full time. Can I still be a Guardian ad Litem?
Many of our volunteers have full-time jobs, but some flexibility with your employer is necessary. Much of the work can be done on the weekend, in the evening, or on the telephone. Court sessions and critical system staffings are during the day, and while you would have significant amounts of notice on these events, there are some where it is very important that you attend. In most cases, you would need your employer’s permission to take off work when you have a court date (every three to six months, depending on the case).
What is the time commitment for a Guardian ad Litem?
The initial training program takes 25-30 hours to complete, usually in the evenings. After you are assigned a case, you will spend and average of 8-12 hours per month interviewing parties, reviewing reports, attending court (if scheduled that month), and visiting with the child. The time commitment varies from case to case and on newly assigned cases there is generally more work to do to learn the child’s condition and situation than there is at the end of a case.
How many cases do I have to take?
In your first year, we strongly recommend that you work with no more than one family and the children associated with that family. After that year, we will ask you if you are willing to take on a second or third case, but you are in control of how many cases you accept. We have no minimum number of cases for volunteers. Each GAL volunteer accepts only as many cases as he/she has time to handle.
Will I have to testify in court?
There is a possibility. Most of the court hearings we are involved in are quite informal, and your attorney can help you present material in a very non-threatening way. There are a few hearings where more formal testimony is given, but you will be well prepared by your attorney. Court is not a scary part of the process, and the judges value what you have to bring and will most often make you feel very welcome. Most of the time, the people who will be called to testify are those with first-hand knowledge, such as the social worker or a doctor. If you do have to testify, the Attorney Advocate and the GAL staff will prepare you thoroughly.
I worry that the parents will resent me and be uncooperative.
It comes as a surprise to many people that the parents are usually more than glad to tell their version of the events that have caused this case to come before the court. As a GAL, you are just asking questions and listening at the outset, and most parents do not find this threatening.
May I take the child to a museum or a ball game?
No. Your role is not to provide services, but to investigate and observe and to be an advocate. That in itself is an important gift to the child, but it requires good judgment, objectivity, and a clear understanding of your role. For this reason, you also must not give significant gifts to the child.