Some Thoughts on the Guardian Ad Litem Reform in Connecticut

GALs Can Be An Essential Resource In Connecticut Custody Cases

Contested divorce and custody cases are perhaps the most integrally difficult and personal experiences that one can go through.  They involve at least the parents, but also sometimes the grandparents – and, at the center of these disputes are children that are very, very loved.  Unfortunately, there are various reasons that these contested cases are in such conflict, some of those reasons easier to resolve than others. In contested cases involving custody and/or visitation, guardian ad litems (GALs) are a crucial component involved in fusing the dichotomy inherent in these most difficult of cases.

GAL: Eyes and Ears of the Court

I once heard someone describe the role of a guardian ad litem in a way that I feel best defines their purpose:  a GAL serves as the “eyes and the ears of the court.”  While the court only hears a case on a specific day (or days), a GAL is involved for a longer period of time – meeting with the parents and/or grandparents, speaking with the children and their doctors, teachers, etc., and making recommendations along the way for helping the parents’ and/or grandparents to effectively work together for the best interests of these children.  It’s true, one parent may feel that the ultimate disposition is not as favorable to them as it is the other party; unfortunately, what must be understood is that it is not the aim of the GAL to make recommendations with fairness to the parties at the forefront of their considerations; instead, the purpose of the GAL is to make recommendations that are in the best interests of the child or children.

In order for a GAL to carry out his or her purpose in these high-conflict cases properly, he or she must be fully invested in doing so.  Of the GALs that I have worked with in my practice, the majority of them have been a tremendously useful component in contested divorce and custody cases.  However, I have also encountered others who I felt frustrated the purpose – not by being overly-involved, but under.  In those cases, the purpose of the GAL is undermined and useless – and potentially damaging.  Certainly, in these situations in which a GAL is derelict in his or her duties, giving the parties standing to petition the court for removal of that GAL will be beneficial.  It should be noted, however, that a party’s perception that a GAL is not being “fair” to him or her will not necessary compel the removal of that GAL – and it should not.  A GAL choosing to be “fair” to one party, to the detriment of a child’s best interest, is being derelict in his or her duties.

Introducing Senate Bill 494…

Helping GALs to properly fulfill their roles and achieve their purpose is what Senate Bill 494 seeks to do; particularly in light of the expressed concerns by some of the parents involved in family law disputes. Our family court system is not necessarily fractured; instead, we are dealing with a sensitive and personal area of law that is different from all others and, therefore, it requires different approaches to work through the unique issues presented. I think that the majority of the reforms to the GAL system will provide some unity between the involvement of the GALs in fulfilling their roles, and the reception to their involvement by the parties. Some attorneys don’t like this – newsflash: it’s not our role as attorneys TO like this. If the people involved, the parents and grandparents, the people whose lives were being so directly impacted by the GALs involvement felt there were major flaws, then our legislature rightfully considered whether changes should be made. The downside to the increased oversight and regulation is yet to be seen, and this may not solve all the issues, but I think it is an important step that has been taken in CT family law.

Similar to other areas of law, under Senate Bill 494 parties will now have more control over their case, including a choice as to who the GAL – the person so integrally involved in their life – will be.  There will also be clearly defined standards that must be met by the GAL in performing his or her role, which should help to ease tensions and concerns in these personal matters.  Given the importance and level of involvement of the GAL in these high-conflict cases, I think that these reforms will ultimately enable GALs to better perform their duties by defining their roles more clearly, and by giving parties a right of recourse should these duties truly fail to be fulfilled.

If you have a contested custody case, it is important to speak with a lawyer and learn your rights.  Your children are your life – having the right representation is crucial.