AVLF Blog: Pro Bono Briefs
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Although the 'best interests of the child' is always at the forefront of our domestic laws, I never truly considered how working directly with children in family law can influence my own practice, expectations, and preconceptions until I began taking volunteer Guardian ad Litem cases with AVLF. As a practicing family law attorney, I have the opportunity to work with clients with children in divorce and adoption cases. But as a GAL, I work with the child during the entire case, and the blinders really come off. Acting as the "eyes and ears" of the Court, you really get to know the child and have the opportunity to play detective-investigating the child's wants, needs, and interests (which are far from the same thing). This isn't my first rodeo working cases with children. Many moons ago, before law school, I worked in Brockton, Massachusetts, as an Education Advocate (EA) attempting to obtain often expensive services for special needs children from public schools which didn't want to cough up the dough. But GAL cases are a whole different experience. Which brings me to the first thing I learned...
1) Parties’ credibility can be questionable. Including kids. Who hasn’t had an adult client who portrayed the facts in their most, ahem, favorable light? While working with kids as an EA, when I questioned children, I never had a reason to doubt them. It was simple—either they received their speech therapy that day or they didn’t. I was essentially an education cheerleader who sang the praises of my clients’ children. However, I realized through one particular GAL case, the answers I now seek are more complicated. Further, the ways children choose to interact with you are more complex. A pre-teen client appeared perfect on the outside—church-goer who received good grades and was a model for the other children in her home. However, as my investigation proceeded, and I met with teachers, and with the child herself I learned that my pre-teen client would frequently lie and was in desperate need of counseling. She would lie about anything and everything. At home she was the perfect angel: her Father oblivious to the bullying, stealing, and consistent lies at school. However, during my initial interview with the pre-teen, I had no idea. I began to that understand when you are examining a child’s credibility, discretion and judgment become a trickier business. I’ve never been in a position that demanded my examination of a child’s credibility far beyond the usual ‘coaching’ parents perform in custody cases. It threw me for a loop and challenged my expectations of the work itself. Which brings me to the second thing I learned…
2) Playing Detective is fun. At the end of your GAL investigation, you humbly submit your written Recommendation to the Judge, which explains your reasoning behind your custody recommendation. The Judge then gets to do whatever she wants with that information and make her final decision. While collecting this information, you get to evaluate all the facts you discovered while playing detective during your investigation and make a specific recommendation based on those facts. You get to do the digging yourself which is normally reserved for hiring out a specialist, like a forensic accountant in a divorce case. For the first time in my practice, I feel like I have a real impact on a child’s life based on my investigating and decision-making alone. And that is a pretty powerful and liberating, but weighty, charge. By doing your best to be straightforward, impartial, and transparent about your investigation and conclusions, you really better enable the Judge to make her best informed decision. To quote Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility.
To conclude, I practice family law and have learned a multitude of new things about myself and my own practice of law through the challenges of Guardian ad Litem work. I can’t imagine how exhilarating it could be coming from a different line of practice, like estate planning or criminal law. You just may come out realizing that you, too, have the opportunity to take your practice blinders off.
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Shedding my Blinders: How Guard ad Litem Work Opened My Eyes
By: Dara Paulsen, ESQ.