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The Role of a Guardian Ad Litem or "GAL" in Child Custody Proceedings

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A GAL may be appointed by the Court upon motion of a party or upon the Court's own motion in child custody matters.

By Attorney Jeffrey B. Engle, Custody Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

I have been involved in contentious child custody matters where there has been a need for a GAL to be appointed to represent not only the interests of the children, but to provide clarity to the court and make specific recommendations to the court.  A GAL is an attorney that is appointed by the court to assist the court and represent the best interests of the children.  At times, the "what the children want" and their best interests may not always be the same thing.  However, as a GAL, the attorney's job is to balance these two factors.

 What the Law Provides

42 Pa.C.S. § 6311(b); Pa. Rule of  Juvenile C. P. No. 1154.

The guardian ad litem is charged with representation of the legal interests and the best interests of the child at every stage of the proceedings and must do all of the following:  

  1. Meet with the child as soon as possible following assignment and on a regular basis thereafter in a manner appropriate to the child's age and maturity;
  2. On a timely basis, be given access to relevant court and county agency records, reports of examination of the guardians or the child, and medical, psychological, and school records;
  3. Participate in all proceedings, including hearings before masters, and administrative hearings and reviews to the degree necessary to adequately represent the child;
  4. Conduct such further investigation necessary to ascertain the facts;
  5. Interview potential witnesses, including the child's guardians, caretakers, and foster parents; examine and cross-examine witnesses; and present witnesses and evidence necessary to protect the best interests of the child;
  6. At the earliest possible date, be advised by the county agency having legal custody of the child of any plan to relocate the child or modify custody or visitation arrangements, including the reasons, prior to the relocation or change in custody or visitation; and any proceeding, investigation, or hearing under the Child Protective Services Law or the Juvenile Act directly affecting the child;
  7. Make any specific recommendations to the court relating to the appropriateness and safety of the child's placement and services necessary to address the child's needs and safety, including the child's educational, health-care, and disability needs;
  8. Explain the proceedings to the child to the extent appropriate given the child's age, mental condition, and emotional condition; and
  9. Advise the court of the child's wishes to the extent that they can be ascertained and present to the court whatever evidence exists to support the child's wishes. When appropriate because of the age or mental and emotional condition of the child, determine to the fullest extent possible the wishes of the child and communicate this information to the court.  (Emphasis added).

As noted, sometimes the role of the GAL can become conflicted when viewing the commands in (7) and (9) above.  Again, the best interests of the children and the individual desires of the children can sometimes be at conflict.  However, if there is a true conflict that cannot be rectified, the GAL may ask the court to appoint legal counsel to represent the children's desires specifically. 

If you are involved in a contentious custody matter and think that a guardian ad litem may assist you, you should contact an experienced attorney to assist you in your case.  You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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