The Role of Guardian ad Litems in Child Dependency Cases

It is a parent’s worst nightmare – their child is suddenly taken away by the state, and they are left to navigate through the foreign and overwhelming worlds of the family court system and child protective services to get the child back. At such a crucial and stressful time in a parent’s life, the more they know about the different arms involved in a child dependency case, the better they can anticipate and respond in a manner that works towards settling the investigation in the parent’s favor.

One aspect of a dependency case that carries substantial weight in the outcome is the role of the guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem serves as an advocate, empowered by the state and appointed by the courts, to act in the best interest of the child, and focuses exclusively on the child to the exclusion of others’ interests or priorities. Florida’s guardian ad litem program, established 35 years ago, has an office in Tallahassee supported by 21 local offices in 20 judicial circuits. The program utilizes a team model, working in tandem, to advocate for children. Knowing the different roles and functions of each team member will help parents in a child dependency case understand how to work with this program and how much their input impacts the outcome of the case.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL)

This person is the most visible advocate of the program working for the best interests of the child, and stands in for the child at courtroom proceedings and other meetings related to the case. Typically, the GAL is a volunteer, although program staff members are sometimes assigned to this role if no volunteers are available. GALs meet with the child at least once per month to establish a relationship and conduct interviews with family members and other individuals in the child’s life having knowledge of his/her welfare. They also review relevant records and have the authority under Florida law to request access to records containing information on the child, the child’s parents or other custodian, from doctors, hospitals, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Most importantly, the GAL makes recommendations to the court on the placement of the child and how quickly permanent placement should take place.

Child’s Best Interest (CBI) Attorney

This person acts as the attorney for the child in court proceedings and is employed by the GAL program. The attorney does not have an attorney-client relationship with the child, but their decisions are also motivated by the best interests of the child. The attorney uses their knowledge of the law to ensure the best interests of the child are addressed, and notifies the court if further action is needed to secure it.

Child Advocate Manager (CAM)

The third and final person on the advocacy team, the child advocate manager is a GAL program employee and serves as the advisor for the GAL on issues they may encounter during an investigation. They advise and support the GAL in fulfilling their role and act as a GAL if no volunteers are available.

As a parent, you will have the most interaction with the GAL, and would likely only see the other team members at court hearings or other official proceedings, so you should attempt to cooperate with the GAL as much as possible. It is not uncommon for GALs to become mentors to the child during this process since parental access is normally limited, and the GALs see the child on a regular basis. Consequently, the GAL’s opinion of you matters. Working with, and not against, the GAL will likely bring reunification easier and faster and maintain your parental rights.

If you are a parent dealing with the state removal of your child, legal representation is vital to protecting your interests and bringing your child home. The Fort Lauderdale firm of Stok Kon + Braverman is experienced in these matters and able to assist you with retaining your parental rights.