The New Year has brought with it many householders determined to stay on budgets, so they sit down in earnest and divvy up paychecks to be spent on housing, food, and so on. If, like Virginia’s legislators, they do this without regard to actual income and expenses, their budgets are doomed. In similar fashion, Virginia’s lawmakers often stipulate programs but do not provide clear guidelines on funding these initiatives.
This is the trouble with the system of legal protections for children, guardians ad litem. The term is from Latin, “guardian for the lawsuit;” a lawyer in a legal dispute in which a child (or incapacitated adult) is, essentially, a helpless bystander, like divorce, child custody, or adoption. The program of guardians ad litem, or GAL, is a story of good intentions undermined by scant resources.
How Does Administering GALs Work?
The office of Executive Secretary for the Virginia Supreme Court oversees a list of attorneys qualified to be guardians ad litem, either for children or for incapacitated Virginians. Children’s GALs are appointed by juvenile and domestic relations district courts and circuit courts.
Administering and organizing lists of available attorneys does not provide proper oversight, however, as revealed in a recent article from News Leader, a newspaper out of Staunton, Virginia. Attorneys performing as children’s GALs submit invoices for services conducted on behalf of children. Those attorneys very seldom face any scrutiny about their billable hours or services rendered.
Standards for Being a GAL
The Commonwealth has a published list of performance standards, rules of professional conduct as espoused by the Virginia Bar Association, and a manual for attorneys acting as GALs. The standards a GAL must fulfill:
- Meet face-to-face and interview the child
- Conduct an independent investigation in order to ascertain the facts of the case
- Advise the child, in terms the child can understand, of the nature of all proceedings, the child’s rights, the role and responsibilities of the GAL, the court process and the possible consequences of the legal action
- Participate, as appropriate, in pre-trial conferences, mediation and negotiations
- Ensure the child’s attendance at all proceedings where the child’s attendance would be appropriate and/or mandated
- Appear in Court on the dates and times scheduled for hearings prepared to fully and vigorously represent the child’s interests
- Prepare the child to testify, when necessary and appropriate, in accord with the child’s interest and welfare
- Provide the court sufficient information including specific recommendations for court action based on the findings of the interviews and independent investigation
- Communicate, coordinate and maintain a professional working relationship in so far as possible with all parties without sacrificing independence
- File appropriate petitions, motions, pleadings, briefs, and appeals on behalf of the child and ensure the child is represented by a GAL in any appeal involving the case
- Advise the child, in terms the child can understand, of the court’s decision and its consequences for the child and others in the child’s life
Most professionals would expect to be justly compensated for their work in conscientiously fulfilling all those tasks. The Virginia GAL system, however, provides only $75 an hour for in-court appearances and $55 for work done outside of court. So what happens then? GALs routinely — and without repercussions — skirt their responsibilities, according to a survey of 310 Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers.
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)
CASA volunteers are everyday Virginians, not paid attorneys, who team with the GALs to provide services for Virginia’s children in the legal system.
The unpaid CASA volunteer has intrinsic, altruistic motivations to help her or his community’s most helpless, while the court-appointed GAL has, at least in part, a financial stake in swiftly finishing a case. CASA volunteers, according to the survey, said GALs cut corners by:
- Not bothering to meet with their child clients — 31 percent “sometimes,” 36 percent “seldom,” nine percent “never”
- Not usually investigating their cases — only nine percent of GALs “always investigate the case”
- Communicating with their clients “seldom” or “sometimes” (54 percent of GALs)
- Being less than exemplary in their GAL work — CASA volunteers, those working most frequently and most closely with GALs, said only nine percent of the GALs were “role model quality”
CASA volunteers aren’t the only ones concerned, however. According to a Virginia Lawyers Weekly article, The Supreme Court of Virginia appointed a 14-member workgroup of judges, lawyers, and others to bring forth solutions. Their recommendation to require GALs sign a certification of their work was quickly shot down in the General Assembly and before a judicial-legislative panel. The same article captures striking viewpoints from Virginia attorneys who have been hesitant to bring GAL issues to light, fearing potential repercussions, one even referring to the system as “off the rails a little bit.”
Repairing the Broken GAL System
Most attorneys working as GALs present invoices for under $1,000, which makes the invoices unlikely to be scrutinized. The cumulative effect on taxpayers, however, is noticeable; The News Leader’s research put one year’s total of local invoices at $326,679. What can taxpayers do to ensure that money is wisely spent?
The Supreme Court can order audits of the GAL invoice system. The Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts could also be compelled to examine the invoices. These actions will not happen unless public opinion and pressure mandates them. That pressure can be brought to bear on local political leaders, since every taxpayer has a stake not only in the GAL system but in the safe, effective protection of Virginia’s children.
When we at The Firm For Men say we are advocates for Virginia’s men, that does not preclude our determined protection for Virginia’s children. Contact us online or at 757-383-9184 to learn how we can help protect your child, preserve your rights, and improve the guardian ad litem system.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained herein is not necessarily the opinion of the firm, its omits, or its staff, and is a summary of published opinions of those cited.