Ask the GAL: Children have a right to court appearance, and community can help them

July 18, 2012 

Q: Do children ever get to attend court and talk to the judge about their case?

A: Yes, children have a right to attend court. After all, the dependency case is about the children and making sure they have a safe home. The case is in the court system because the caregivers have done something to expose children to an unsafe environment. When attorneys, case managers, guardians ad litem and parents are in court to discuss the case, the issues impact the children. It is the child's right to be present, offer their input, and express their concern.

Judges in the 12th Circuit are very good about making private time during court for children to speak with them when the children desire to do so. Being heard by the judge may give the children a sense of power in an otherwise helpless situation.

Before children attend court, however, several things need to be considered.

1. The age of the child:

An infant who can't speak or isn't old enough to understand what is going on may not need to be in court, although sometimes just seeing the child and their interaction with their parent or caregiver can influence the court one way or another.

2. The child's desire to attend court:

When a child does not want to be in court, they shouldn't be forced to appear. Some children might consider attendance a hardship due to time away from school or camp or having to drive long distances to attend court.

3. The type of court action being conducted:

The court should be sensitive to the type of action being taken. It isn't appropriate for children to be present when they might hear things about their parent that they should not hear, see their parent handcuffed or arrested, or have to face an abuser.

Guardians routinely ask the child if they want to attend court and report to the court the child's answer, along with the guardian's recommendation regarding the appropriateness of the child attending.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Guardian ad Litem Program, has shared his opinion regarding children in the courtroom: "I …support that children are and should be parties to dependency proceedings and should participate, if it is in their best interest, at critical junctures in the case and, especially for old

er children, should be able to come to court at any time they want to attend."

Q: What can we do individually or as a community to help children in dependency?

The following are responses from guardians ad litem. If you have an idea, please share it at askthegal To help those children in dependency, we can individually support legislative efforts to provide for the adequate funding of programs that are designed to protect and enhance the lives of these children. In addition, we can become foster parents and/or volunteer for programs like the Guardian ad Litem program that advocate for children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.

-- Paul Dain

A: As a community, people can best help children in dependency by embracing them as part of a whole. Oftentimes, these kids feel "separate" and alone because of actions that have nothing to do with them.

Extracurricular activities, clubs and social events help foster this feeling of inclusiveness, but there are not always funds to make it happen and people have little energy to spare. As a community, we can keep our eyes and ears open to this type of need and contribute in any way we can.

It is also crucial as individuals that we stay tuned in to these children. They are a part the future and it is worthwhile to invest our emotional energy and financial support in them. If just one person pays attention to a child who feels rejected and mistreated, it can turn a life around.

The biggest handicap for children in dependency is that they somehow think the situation they are in is their fault. Individual attention, compassion and a guiding hand can lead a child away from this line of thinking and help them understand there are choices in life. Children in dependency need their community, but mostly they need to feel that they are worthy of attention and love, even if it is by just one person.

-- Vicki Cooley

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Readers who have questions for "ASK the GAL" about child abuse, foster care, child protection, adoption, or who might be interested in learning more how to become a GAL volunteer can e-mail Pam at askthegal@12gal.org, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.

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