Thirty-five years ago the State Court System of the state of Florida implemented a unique court volunteer program which was meant to assist neglected or abused children. The program was called the State of Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, and the goal of the program was to represent the best interests of Florida who have been abused or neglected. Today, all juvenile dependency or divorce custody cases in Florida must have a Guardian ad Litem appointed whenever there are allegations of abuse or neglect, or in criminal cases where the child has witnessed a crime or is a victim of a crime. In any divorce case in which custody is an issue during a divorce, the judge may appoint a Guardian ad Litem.
What is the Function of a Guardian ad Litem?
A Guardian ad Litem is a specially-trained volunteer, appointed by the court, to ensure the best interests of the child are protected during any judicial proceeding. The court appoints the Guardian ad Litem, making them a party to the cause of action. Before Guardians ad Litem were routinely available to represent the best interests of the children, officials of the state were often facing a conflict of interest which kept them from truly looking after the children. As an example, DCF must consider the needs of the family rather than only the needs of the child, however a Florida Guardian ad Litem is only charged with ensuring the child’s best interests are taken care of. An attorney in a divorce case has the same conflict of interest, as he or she is representing the best interests of the parent—which could be vastly different than the best interests of the child.
Does a Guardian ad Litem Have to be an Attorney?
A Guardian ad Litem is not required to be an attorney, in fact, any adult with good judgment and a true desire to help children in difficult situations, can be a Guardian ad Litem. Many Guardians ad Litem have dealt with crises in their own life, perhaps as a child, making them more empathetic to what the child is going through. The court will pair children with Guardians ad Litem based on the seriousness of the case as well as the Guardian’s background, the child’s background and the amount of time the case is expected to take. The Guardian is expected to monitor the legal proceedings related to how they affect the child, to investigate the facts when necessary, to be a spokesperson and protector for the child and to report to the court on behalf of the child. All Guardians ad Litem must undergo a mandatory training session and a thorough background check.
The Role of the Guardian ad Litem
The “investigator” role of the Guardian ad Litem can be better described as an independent fact finder who gathers all pertinent information regarding the child’s current and past situations. The Guardian ad Litem must ensure all court orders are properly carried out and that the child receives all mandated intervention. The Guardian ad Litem will form an opinion regarding how the child’s best interests will be best protected, then will make a recommendation to the court. In the case of a contentious divorce, the Guardian ad Litem will speak to both parents, other caretakers, relatives, teachers, and anyone else who has significant contact with the child. In helping the court determine which parent should have primary custody, the Guardian ad Litem will take into consideration the psychological, developmental and physical needs of the child which will enable that child to live a happy, “normal” childhood. If the child could benefit from specific services, resources or programs, the Guardian ad Litem will relay this information to the court.
Statutory Authority for Florida Guardian ad Litem
Florida Statute §61.403 establishes the authority and powers given to Guardians ad Litem. These include the power to interview anyone who has any information regarding the best interests of the child, inspect any pertinent records, investigate any allegations, address the court, participate in all proceedings involving the child, make recommendations to the court, request expert examinations and submit written reports to the court. The Guardian ad Litem is in a unique position to see the things in a child’s life an overworked DCF worker or an attorney who must look after the best interests of the client may not see. Far too many times, the rights and bests interests of the children get trampled as the court listens to the parents and the parents’ attorneys.
Specific Requirements for a Florida Guardian ad Litem
The written report of the Guardian ad Litem is extremely important to the ultimate custody decision made by the court, as courts generally consider this report an honest and sincere evaluation of the situation. In the state of Florida, a Guardian ad Litem must be at least 19 years old, must complete 30 initial hours of training, must have two letters of reference and two screening interviews, and must pass a background check. There is also a six-hour continuing education yearly requirement.
A dispute over child custody case in a Florida divorce can become extremely emotional and volatile. The more contentious the relationship between the parents, the more likely the children are to be hurt. In some instances when a request for creation or modification of a parenting plan is at hand, the court may appoint a Guardian ad Litem to look after the best interests of the child, and to hear what the child has to say about the proposed parenting plans.
The role of a Florida Guardian ad Litem has been described as “promoting society’s interest in protecting children from the traumas commonly associated with divorce and custody disputes.” If you are in the middle of a divorce and/or child custody dispute, speaking with an attorney from The Family Law Place can ensure both your best interests as well as those of your children are properly protected during the proceeding.