My Guardian ad litem is SO biased!

Posted on Jan 11, 2019 by Katie Carter

Working with a Guardian ad litem (an attorney appointed to represent the interests of the child to the court in a custody and visitation case) isn’t easy, to put it mildly. And, if you’re one of the many, many, many women I’ve worked with or talked to over the years who hates your Guardian ad litem with a fiery passion you didn’t know you could feel for another human being, just know – you’re not alone.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that the GAL was partial to the other side, or that he or she was treating the child’s father differently from the child’s mother, I’d have a whole lot of dollars. I don’t have an exact count, but it’d be a lot.

Working with a GAL isn’t something that you do every day, so it’s probably safe to say that you haven’t had a lot of experience working with a Guardian ad litem. Questions that the GAL asks, or things that the GAL does, are unexpected, and, probably, foreign to you. It may even feel incredibly invasive, which makes you defensive. Not to mention, you have to talk to him or her about something that already pushes all your buttons (your ex!) and turns you into a mama bear. I totally get it!

Working with a GAL is counterintuitive, in a lot of ways. You know that the Guardian ad litem is there specifically because of the issues you’re experiencing, and it’s tempting to want to offload your feelings to the person who will, ultimately, make some pretty important recommendations TO THE JUDGE about your case.

It’s also tempting to want to explain what brought you to this point. The fundamental disagreements you and your child’s father have, or even what led to your breakup, are all topics that, in my experience, most women discuss.

Though I’ve never been a Guardian ad litem (because I’ve always worked here, and who’d hire a GAL from a firm that represents women only? Kind of an assumed bias there, to say the least!), one of the attorneys who works for our firm, Caitlin Walters, has. (She doesn’t anymore, of course, for the same reason that I never have, but she does have some really invaluable experience, training, and insight into working with a Guardian ad litem.)

She tells me (and I’m pretty sure this is an exact quote), “If both parents hated me, I felt like I did my job.”  She ALSO told me that, most times, she looked in parent’s refrigerators to see what was in there when she conducted her home visits. Now, I don’t know about you, but some all-knowing stranger waltzing into my house and checking out the contents of my fridge would be a little upsetting and off putting. I might feel a little defensive, if it were me.

But, as you’re probably already aware, you probably shouldn’t let this feelings take control. Stay calm, cool, collected, and make sure that you are projecting the kind of image that you’d want the judge to see. Probably – like Caitlin – the Guardian ad litem is trying to rattle you, at least a little bit. It gives her some insight to your character, and the ability to (maybe!) see you at your worst. Hey, what’s she supposed to do? If she were all polite and cordial and friendly, you might be completely professional and unfrazzled, and never give her any material to work with as she thought about her recommendation.  Besides that, she can’t appear to like one side more than the other.  So, even though you may feel like the GAL hates you and is being nicer to dad, that’s probably because (1) your child’s father is leading you to believe that he has some “in” that he doesn’t actually have, or (2) you’re just not privy to the conversations that they’re having.  It’s easy to imagine, especially if the conversation(s) you’ve had with the GAL haven’t gone the way you wished, that dad’s conversations have been better.  Chances are, they haven’t (though he certainly won’t clue you in to that fact!).

The problem is, though, that when a GAL employs this strategy (which, it seems, they almost all do), then I wind up with a client calling, emailing, or telling me face-to-face that their GAL is biased, and prefers their child’s father. That the GAL never gave her a chance. That the GAL really seems to have already made up her mind.

Though I can certainly understand why this would feel really, really scary, I just don’t think that’s the case in most cases. Though there are definitely some not so good GALs out there (just like there are not very good people in every other line of work that ever existed), most are just trying to do their job. And their job? It’s determining what’s in the child’s best interests. So, it’s really not about being fair to you, or to your child’s father – it’s just about assessing those all important ten best interests of the child factors and applying them to your case.

It depends, of course, what the issues ARE, too. No two cases are exactly the same, and that means the GAL’s approach may vary depending on what’s going on in your case. For example, let’s talk about something I discussed briefly on Wednesday. In a case where the issue is delegation of visitation during a military deployment, and we’re questioning the fitness of the person to whom the child’s father would like to delegate visitation, what kinds of questions do you think the GAL will ask? What do you think he or she is looking for? Would it be reasonable, say, to notice that the GAL spent more time talking to dad, and trying to figure out what’s going on in his day to day, than he or she spent talking to mom? Though that might feel to mom like she’s being a little bit left out, the reason why is because dad IS the issue. What’s going on at his house IS what’s relevant.

In a case where delegation of visitation during deployment is the issue, what’s happening at dad’s house is the concern – not so much all the good things that are happening at mom’s. No one is suggesting that mom has an issue, so why would the GAL spend as much time looking into her home and she did looking into dad’s? So, anyway, all that to say that, before you get too concerned over how much time the Guardian ad litem is spending doing something or talking about something, take a moment to consider the issues. You can bet your boots that’s what the GAL is doing!

Guardians ad litem are typically prickly, and you have to tread carefully. If you’re dealing with one, it’s probably also a good idea to have an attorney representing you. Your attorney can help give you pointers for how to behave, what questions you should be asking, and even give you some ultimate no-nos. I’ve tried to start doing that here, but, of course, a lot is, like I already said, very dependent on the exact issues that you’re experiencing in your case.

We’ve also come up with a guide (a couple guides, actually) for how to deal with a GAL. It gives some other really good general pointers, and, if you’d like a copy, just click here. We’ve got a book that explains the custody case process, and might also be helpful for you as you begin to figure out what is happening procedurally in your case.

And, as always, if you’re looking for an attorney to represent you in your upcoming or ongoing custody case, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.