Ask the GAL: Top question for guardian is 'How's the child doing?', attorney says

February 6, 2013 

editor's note: C. Michael Kelly is an attorney representing indigent parents of children in the dependency system. Today he reflects on the role of the Guardian ad Litem from his place at the parent's defense table.

How's the child doing?"

This is a question that every Circuit Court judge asks a guardian ad litem. It is one of the most important questions asked at every hearing in juvenile court once a guardian for the child has been appointed.

When a guardian ad litem is asked this question, the Department of Children and Families, the parents and the judge anxiously await the answer.

The answer can have a substantial impact on the direction the case is going. This impact can affect the potential reunification of the child with the family, to permanent custody of the child to a relative, or even the termination of a parent's rights to that child. Great weight is given to the guardian when answering this question.

Part of a guardian ad litem's role requires them to monitor the child regularly, including visiting the child once every month at a minimum. Because of this constant contact and regular monitoring, the court gives great weight to the guardian's opinion.

The Department of Children and Families and the child's parents may have very different ideas regarding the future welfare of the child, the current welfare of the child, and the direction a case should take. A guardian ad litem's obligation is to seek the best interest of the child and serve as that child's voice.

The juvenile court judge hopes that when the guardian offers their report to the court, the judge will be hearing the child's view filtered through a trained adult's voice who has the mandate to serve that child's best interest.

Juvenile court is equivalent to an emergency room for families. Services of that court are required in emergencies and emergencies only. Once the emergency has been resolved, it is the obligation of juvenile court to release the family from state observation.

The best possible outcome for juvenile court is a reunification between children and their parents who are now safe, competent caregivers.

The most drastic outcome is the permanent termination of a parent's rights to their own child and the ultimate adoption of that child by new parents. In this case, a new family is created with a child growing up with new loving competent caregivers.

The role of the guardian ad litem is to assist the court in moving toward the solution that best

serves the child's interest. The first step in fulfilling that role is answering the question "How's the child doing?" A simple question that from a child's perspective can change the world.

Practicing law since 1985

C. Michael Kelly is a lawyer who is approved to represent parents in dependency cases in the 12th Judicial Circuit. Parents who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer for a dependency case are represented by either the Office of Regional Counsel or a private practice attorney who has been screened and approved to represent parents in these cases.

Kelly has been practicing law since 1985 and has served as an attorney for the Department of Children and Families and as a state attorney in Pinellas County before accepting the responsibility of representing indigent parents in dependency cases in addition to his private practice where he focuses on Family Law and Probate matters.

His web site is cmichaelkelly@law.com. He can be reached at 941-744-5291.

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