Your average dependency case involves several attorneys, and it is common for the roles to overlap. Often times you will hear several people in the courtroom say that they are arguing for “what is in the best interest of the child,” yet they have different opinions on what that means.
The Guardian Ad Litem program (“GAL/program”) is the organization that is meant to represent what is in the child’s best interest. In Court, they are often made up of a team of three people;, the volunteer who meets with the children, the Child Advocate Manager who the volunteer reports back to, and the Guardian Ad Litem attorney, who represent the program in Court. The program is appointed by the Court. If the Court chooses to appoint the program, they will usually do so at the first hearing, also known as the shelter hearing. Sometimes, the Court will refrain from appointing the program when the child has remained at home with at least one parent. It is important to know that the Guardian Ad Litem program is not necessarily going to represent the child’s stated interests. They do their own investigation into the facts of the case and make their own determination as to what is in the child’s best interest. If the parent is doing well, in theory, the Guardian Ad Litem program should be pushing for reunification, as it is in the child’s best interest. That is not always the case, and often the program is influenced by the opinion of the Department of Children and Families, and their representatives.
An Attorney Ad Litem (“AAL”) is an attorney that is appointed by the Court to represent the child’s stated interests. The idea is that the attorney becomes a “voice box” for the child and uses the law to advance that child’s stated desires. For example, if the child wants to go home, it is that attorney’s job to use the law to try to convince the Judge to reunify the family. Often times this means that the AAL and the parent’s attorneys will be making the same arguments. The opposite is true if the child does not want to return home. For an AAL, the only important factor is what the child wants, regardless of whether what they want is in their best interest.
Just like the Guardian Ad Litem program, the Attorney Ad Litem has to be appointed by the Court. At any stage of the proceedings, any party may request or the Court may consider whether an Attorney Ad Litem is necessary. There are certain occasions when the Court must appoint an Attorney Ad Litem. For example, an Attorney Ad Litem must be appointed for a dependent child who:
(a) Resides in a skilled nursing facility or is being considered for placement in a skilled nursing home;
(b) Is prescribed a psychotropic medication but declines assent to the psychotropic medication;
(c) Has a diagnosis of a developmental disability as defined in s. 393.063;
(d) Is being placed in a residential treatment center or being considered for placement in a residential treatment center; or
(e) Is a victim of human trafficking as defined in s. 787.06(2)(d).
When a parent receives a reunification case plan, theoretically the goal for everyone involved is to reunify the family. If the parent is demonstrating positive behavior changes through the use of the case plan, moving towards reunification is in the best interest of the child, and everyone should be trying to convince the Court of the same. Unfortunately, even when things are going well, there is likely going to be a difference in opinion as to how quickly a family should be reunified.
As a parent, it is difficult to watch so many other people determine what is best for your child. It is essential to have an experienced Dependency attorney to guide you and help argue what you believe is in your child’s best interest. If you are ready to meet with a dependency attorney, please give our office a call today at 386.257.1222.