Who or What is a Guardian ad Litem (GAL)?

A Short Answer

One individual in the juvenile courtroom that parents seldom notice or meet is the Guardian Ad Litem, commonly referred to as “a G A L.” Pronounce each letter, do not shorten it to the word “gal.” This nearly invisible individual is seldom introduced to the parents or the child(ren). She or he generally remains faceless to the frantic parents and traumatized children involved in child-in-need-of-care cases.

Nothing in this post is intended to provide legal advice or replace the advice from a licensed attorney. For answers to specific questions, consult a licensed attorney in the relevant state, district, or province.

Juvenile Judge

The position of GAL exists only because a requirement for a state to receive federal funding for children in state custody is–each child must have a representative in court whose sole duty is to look out for “the child’s best interest” in the court proceedings. For each child-in-need-of-care case, the judge appoints a GAL.

In most states, the GAL is a licensed attorney. In some states, anyone who attends a few hours of specific classes may be a certified or licensed GAL.

The rules in juvenile courts and child welfare cases vary widely from state to state and from courtroom to courtroom within a state. For precise information, parents must consult their state statutes or seek an attorney or other knowledgeable person to interpret those state statutes.  In this posting, I will discuss only general concepts which may or may not be pertinent.

What is the GAL’s Job?

Guardian ad Litem

Traditionally a GAL attends a court hearing with a folder filled with paperwork generated by social workers. The GAL’s information comes from the social workers–it is important to note that most GALs do not gather information from the parents or the children. Their recommendations will most likely be based solely on paperwork filed by the social workers. The GAL may his or her folder to read the paperwork before or during the first few minutes of the hearing. To a parent, the GAL’s job may appear to be to parroting whatever the social worker or the state’s attorney says and to object to anything the parent(s) wants for their child(ren).

Some states require, others suggest the GAL tell the court if the GAL’s recommendation goes against the child’s wishes. For example: the GAL recommends the child be put in foster care, but the child wishes to go home to his/her parent(s). GALs seldom notify the court of the child(ren)’s request, even if the state requires the GAL to forward the request. After all, if the GAL has never spoken to or met the child, how could the GAL know what the child wishes?  Again, there are exceptional GALs who do meet with the child(ren) and report their wishes to the court, but those GALs are rare.

Who pays the GAL?


The judge appoints the GAL, and, usually, based on the judge’s recommendation, the GAL is paid. This provides an incentive for the GAL to ensure the hearings for the child(ren) goes quickly, smoothly, and according to the judge’s wishes. The GAL has absolutely no financial incentive for questioning the social worker’s or the judge’s decisions.

Normally the GAL is paid on a per case basis, not on an hourly basis, so the more cases a GAL handles, the more they get paid. There are exceptions. Sometimes the GAL is a volunteer position and there is no pay. But in most cases, it is in the GAL’s best financial interest to spend as little time as possible on each case or child.

How and When Does a GAL Interact with the Children?

Guardian a Litem Files

Normally, the GALs never see or interact with the children who are referred to as wards. With the GALs maximizing their caseloads to maximize their salary, very little personal attention is spent with each child or ward. The GALs keep a file on each child. There are exceptions, but most children never meet their GAL and most GALs never meet the ward (child) they represent. In fact, most children are not even aware they have a GAL who is supposedly looking out for their best interest.

Final Word about GALs

Everything about juvenile courts and GALs varies from state to state, from court to court, from year to year. There are general trends and patterns, but only a specialist in the laws for a specific state can give precise answers regarding any court issues or procedures.


For more information: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/guardian_ad_litem

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