Vermont’s Guardian ad litem (“GAL”) system needs review and revision. GALs are appointed to represent the best interest of children. They are used in family court litigation between parents, and in cases where the state has either taken custody of a child in need of care and supervision, or a child who has committed a juvenile crime. GALs are volunteers and have a limited role: they can only give the court an opinion based on the evidence they heard in court. While GALs are expected to interview parents and children, and some even interview teachers and counselors, they are not allowed to use the information gathered outside of court to provide the court with an opinion as to what is in the best interest of the child. Thus the system is dysfunctional: GALs are expected to gather information that they cannot use in court. The worst part of the system in my opinion is the fact that GALs are volunteers. Because they are volunteers, there are few GALs to choose from and GALs are inadequately trained. There are many dedicated and effective GALs, but too many GALs bring prejudices to their job that they refuse to set aside. The major prejudice I have observed in cases involving two parents is against men. I have seen the following happen too many times over the years I have practiced: A newly appointed GAL calls the mother and the mother’s atorney and gets their side of the story. The GAL does not talk to either the father or the father’s attorney prior to the hearing. At the courthouse, the GAL may sit in the witness room with the mother and her attorney, and may not bother to sit down with father to find out his position. None of this, of course, is lost on the father. The result: the GAL has made up his or her mind before the hearing starts, and —surprise!–does not change his or her mind after hearing the evidence. GALs who are this prejudiced are not harmless. Parties who are treated unfairly by GALs conclude that our court system is biased, and lose faith that the legal system will treat them fairly. Those parties often become bitter, causing unecessary rifts between parents, and even between parents and children. The party who is treated unfairly may be less inclined to follow court orders because of loss of respect for the court system.
Vermont judges are professionals and treat litigants fairly and courteously. It is rare for a client to complain that a judge appears biased. The same cannot be said for GALs. And because GALs are considered by parties to be representative of the court system, they can do enormous damage to public perception of our legal system’s integrity.
What is the solution? There should be a review of the GAL system to determine ts goals and effectiveness. For example, other states, like New Hampshire, use professional, paid GALs who take a much more active role in determining parenting issues. I am not sure whether Vermont should adopt such a system, but I believe that GALs should be adequately compensated to attract more GALs, and adequately trained so that they understand their role as an impartial advocate for the children.