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.