When a petition alleging abuse or neglect of an underage child is filed in a North Carolina district court, the child involved has legal rights. To ensure those rights are protected as the court makes decisions about temporary care and permanent custody of the child, the judge is required to appoint a volunteer guardian ad litem (GAL) and an attorney to provide representation for the child.
In highly contentious child custody cases, a family law judge may appoint a GAL to ensure that someone is looking after the child’s interests. In some cases, a judge may appoint a GAL because one of the parents requests the appointment or both parents agree that a GAL should be appointed.
A guardian ad litem is a trained community volunteer who investigates the circumstances of the child’s case, confers with other social services representatives working to help the child, and makes a written recommendation to the court as to what is best for the child.
As family law attorneys who handle child custody and domestic violence cases in North Carolina, we at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks work with volunteers in the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem program on a regular basis. If a guardian ad litem has been assigned to your child in a custody case, you may have questions about the role of this person. We explain the GAL program below.
What Does a Guardian Ad Litem Do in North Carolina?
The North Carolina General Assembly established the Office of Guardian ad Litem Services as a division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts in 1983. The law that established the program, N.C.G.S. 7B-601, gives the GAL standing to represent the juvenile in all legal action pertaining to the assigned case and authorizes the guardian ad litem to obtain any information or reports that the GAL believes may be relevant to the case.
A GAL is expected to:
- Investigate to determine the facts of the case, the needs of the juvenile, and the resources available to meet those needs. This includes getting to know the child and interviewing parents, caretakers, social workers, teachers, and other service providers.
- Collaborate with other participants in the case, including the GAL attorney.
- Recommend what is best for the child in written reports for the court.
- Offer evidence and explore options with the court at hearings.
- Keep the child informed about the case and court proceedings, ensure that the court knows the child’s wishes, and facilitate the child’s participation in court hearings as appropriate.
- Conduct follow-up investigations to ensure that the orders of the court are being properly executed.
- Report to the court when the needs of the juvenile are not being met.
- Protect and promote the best interests of the juvenile until formally relieved of the responsibility by the court.
- Keep all information confidential.
A guardian ad litem serves on a child’s case until a permanent plan is approved by the court and achieved for the child.
Volunteer advocates are screened (including a criminal record check), and receive 30 hours of initial training. They are expected to attend at least six hours of in-service training yearly. All GAL advocates are trained, supervised, and supported by program staff.
The GAL program exists in every county in North Carolina and serves more than 18,000 children a year. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, 5,443 volunteer advocates provided 522,528 hours of service to the GAL program in the 2019-20 fiscal year, including attendance at 64,070 child abuse and neglect hearings.
Guardian Ad Litem in Child Custody Cases
When child custody decisions go before a judge, this individual who has likely never met the parents or the child must decide what living arrangements will serve the best interests of the minor child. Some factors a judge may take into consideration include:
- The role each parent has previously played in taking care of the child.
- Each parent’s mental and physical condition and their ability to take care of the child.
- The time each parent has for the child and the living environment that each parent can create for the child.
- The status of the relationship between the parent and the child.
Children don’t often testify in court, though sometimes a judge will talk to a child who is old enough and mature enough to express their feelings.
By the time a case gets to court, a GAL has met with the parents and the child and come to know them. The GAL has also spoken to witnesses about the family’s lifestyle and the child’s demeanor, such as other family members, teachers, and coaches.
When a GAL makes their recommendations to the court, it carries weight because the judge knows the GAL is the one person whose sole duty it is to look after the best interests of the child. He or she has put in the time and effort necessary to understand the situation and come to a reasoned conclusion and recommendations.
A GAL shares their reports with the judge and attorneys for each spouse in a child custody case ahead of the final custody hearing. As your attorneys, we would promptly share this report with you. When appropriate, a GAL is expected to facilitate the settlement of disputes pertaining to an assigned case. Working with a GAL could be the path to settling some or all of your child custody issues outside of court.
Contact Our North Carolina Child Custody Attorneys
The family law attorneys at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks understand how difficult child custody issues can be when you are going through separation and divorce. Our experienced family law lawyers are dedicated to providing compassionate representation for clients’ rights during this trying time. Contact us today to speak with a lawyer about your situation.