VIRGINIA: Controversy over Guardian ad Litems

The Study

People are not happy with Guardian ad Litems ("GALs").  There have been several studies conducted in the last few years of various social service professionals regarding their attitudes to GALs.

The most recent survey that created controversy was a poll of three hundred (300) Court Appointed Special Advocates (“CASAs”). CASAs are non-lawyers who volunteer their time to talk with children during court proceedings. CASA volunteers are important, because they provide emotional support for children. 

The survey results were not good:

1. Ninety (90) percent feel that GALs are not performing their job.

2. Thirty-Six (36) percent stated that Guardian ad Litems "seldom" visit the children.

3. Only Nine percent (9%) stated that Guardian ad Litems are investigating their cases.

The Aftermath

The survey results caused an uproar with the press. After the survey results were released, several newspapers contacted local courts to get more information on GALs. One such court released the billing information for several GALs in and around Stafford County, Virginia. Many of the GALs were receiving approximately One Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($1,000.00) per case. 

So what is the result of all this bad press?

GALs and family lawyers are currently debating what these results mean for the legal community. Some legislators are already talking about abolishing the role of GALs entirely. Legislators are being faced with a large bill and anger over the perceived lack of accountability for GALs. It is likely that there will be huge changes to the GAL system going forward.

Suggestions for Change

Whether we agree with the results of the study or not, we GALs have failed. At the very least, we have failed to work collaboratively with other social service professionals. The lack of communication between GALs and CASA has resulted in animosity and a lack of mutual understanding of what our job is.

The problem facing GALs is reminiscent of the public perception of lawyers during changes to the disciplinary rules in the 1990s. People don't know what we do, or why we bill so much time. 

The first step forward is to begin working more closely with our volunteer counterparts. We need to educate our colleagues on our role, and work to clear any misunderstanding. Furthermore, we need to make absolutely sure we abide by the standards that govern GALs.

Finally, we need to advocate for more stringent standards for GALs. The standards right now are simply baseline requirements. As with the changes that came by switching away from the disciplinary rules, we need to modify the standards that govern GALs. Only when we have a more comprehensive set of guidelines will we be able to perform to the best of our abilities.