Legal

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.

What Are Removal Proceedings?

If you have found this article, it is likely that you are facing one of the most difficult times in a parent's life. Many states have proceedings that are known as "removal proceedings". This is a complicated, multi-step process that begins whenever the Government has concerns about the health and safety of your children. The purpose of this article is to dispel some of the unknown factors that go into these proceedings.

In the state of Virginia, these proceedings are initiated by the Department of Social Services. They can start a number of different ways, but typically are in the context of an Emergency Removal. Facts have come to the attention of DSS which leads them to believe that the children are no longer safe in your home. 

One of the first steps can be the initial removal of the children upon an "affidavit" filed with the Court. this document outlines to the Court why the Department thinks the children should be removed. Within a short period of time after this removal, you are entitled to an initial hearing to determine if the removal was appropriate. At that hearing, you can choose to participate with DSS or fight the removal. 

A few things can happen at that first hearing. The Court can decide to take up both the reasons for the removal and whether or not the children have been "abused or neglected". Alternatively, the Court may split these two issues up into two different hearings.

If it is split up, you will have another hearing called an "adjudicatory hearing" within 30 days unless all agree to push it out further. At this hearing, the Court will take evidence about whether the children were abused or neglected. After this hearing, you will get a "dispositional hearing". At that hearing, the Court will decide whether the children will be returned or will continue with their placement elsewhere.

If you are facing a removal proceeding, you need immediate counsel. Courts will typically appoint counsel for those who cannot afford counsel. However, if you can afford counsel, it is imperative that you begin looking for an attorney immediately upon receiving notice of the removal.

Five Tips for Preparing to Meet With Your Wills Attorney

While getting the documents you need to plan for your family's future is important, it is also important to prepare the documents your attorney will need to get those documents done. The more preparation and planning you do now, the less expensive your estate planning will be. There are five tips to keep in mind when meeting with your attorney.

STEP ONE: PREPARE A LIST OF YOUR ASSETS

It is important that your attorney have a clear picture of all the things that you own and all the people that you owe debts to. The balance of your debt and your assets is important in drafting a good estate plan. Some information that will need to be on this list is how much you obtained the item for, how much the item is currently worth, and where the item is currently located. This also applies to debts. Your attorney will need to know who you owe money to, how much you owe that person, and when you incurred that debt. Getting names and contact information is important.

STEP TWO: PREPARE A LIST OF HEIRS

It is important that your attorney know who all your relatives are. Many relatives may decide to intervene when it comes to carrying out your Will, and your attorney will need to plan for those people. Include in your list addresses and phone numbers. This will allow the attorney to quickly get in contact with these people.

STEP THREE: DECIDE WHO WILL ADMINISTER YOUR ESTATE

You also need to start thinking about who will be distributing your assets. This needs to be a person who is in a strong financial position and will be able to post a bond. It is best if this person is a resident of your state. Your lawyer will also need their contact information.

STEP FOUR: MAKE A LIST OF CURRENT MEDICAL CONDITIONS

Your attorney needs to know your current health condition as well. This comes into play when determining whether a trust is a good idea. Planning for future medical needs is part of the process, and knowing what conditions you currently have help to inform your lawyer of the best steps to take.

STEP FIVE: MAKE A LIST OF QUESTIONS

Come prepared to your first meeting. Make a list of questions in advance that you can ask your lawyer. Being informed is an important part of the process, and lawyers are only able to answer those questions people ask them. 

Custody and Visitation in Virginia Part 2

Child custody and visitation is a multi-step process in Virginia that starts with the determination of Venue and Jurisdiction. The next step in the process is filing the case. A case for custody or visitation can be filed one of two ways; in the Circuit Court as part of a divorce, or in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

     Custody and visitation can be decided two primary ways in the Circuit Court. The first is by agreement between the parties. An agreement can be reached either through meditation or working closely with your attorneys. Mediation is a court service that provides an impartial third person to listen to the concerns of both sides. The mediator will create an agreement that meets the needs of both sides. This allows for the parents to save time and money by not going to trial. Parents can ask for a mediator to be appointed to their case as part of the filing procedure.

     The second method of establishing custody and visitation in Circuit Court is through a contested hearing. Both sides will need to put on evidence at the hearing that will help the court to determine what is in "the best interests of the child". This is a rather technical phrase that takes into consideration a number of factors. A guardian ad litem may be appointed that will do an objective investigation to inform the court of what they think is in the best interest of the child. These trials usually last a number of days, and can include expert testimony, documents, and professionals who watch over the child.

     There is a wider variety of ways to handle custody and visitation in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Parents do not necessarily have to be married in order to file for custody. If parents are not married, then they should look to the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Custody and visitation can be handled the same way as it is in Circuit Court; by an agreement between the parties or by a contested hearing to determine the best interests of the child. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court also allows for entrustment agreements. These agreements allow for a parent to give up their rights to a child voluntarily. A fourth way of handling child custody and visitation in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court is through the adoption process. A child can be adopted by a new spouse through the courts. This method allows for an involuntary termination of the parental rights.

These are but a few of the means of determining child custody and visitation. If a couple is married, then they may want to go through the Circuit Court to determine the best way of handling the issue. If the couple is unmarried, then they will likely need to go to the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.