Common Questions a Guardian ad Litem Will Ask You and Your Child
And What to Expect The First Time You Meet
A Guardian ad Litem investigation typically happens when the parties cannot agree on a custody or placement determination regarding their children. When the parties cannot resolve child-related issues on their own, the court appoints an attorney to investigate the children’s best interests and to make a recommendation to the court as to what kind of custody and placement arrangements would be most beneficial for the child.
The Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) typically has a lot of influence over the judge—after all, she has appointed the GAL to be her eyes and ears. Therefore, your interactions and communications with the GAL may, in large part, drive the GAL’s investigation and their opinion of what is best for your child. Knowing what to expect and how to prepare for a GAL investigation could make or break your case. Read on for tips and insights that will help you put your best foot forward!
Preparation Tips for Parents
Preparing for your Initial Meeting
Your first meeting with a GAL will usually be one-on-one. You will meet with the GAL at his or her office without your attorney, without the child’s other parent present, and without your child. The GAL will conduct an informational interview to learn about you, your relationship with the other parent, and your relationship with your children.
Be prepared for the GAL to inquire about the following:
- Your family history and significant life events: Where you grew up; how you were raised; what kind of relationship you have with your parents and siblings; whether your parents were divorced; whether you have any family history of abuse, neglect, poverty, or drug/alcohol issues, etc.
- Your relationship history with the other parent: When and how you met; how long you were in a relationship; how you came to be parents together; how you work together as co-parents; how the relationship ended; whether there is any history of interspousal battery or domestic abuse.
- Your relationship with your child: What caregiving role have you played in the past; how you see that role evolving in the future; any parenting struggles or achievements you have experienced; What your child would say about you as a parent.
- Your child’s relationship with the other parent: What caregiving role the other parent has played and how you would like that role to change, if at all; any parenting struggles or achievements they have experienced; What your child would say about his or her relationship with the other parent.
- Information about your child: His personality and interests; how he is doing in school; whether he has any medical or educational concerns; whether he has special relationships with any third parties such as grandparents, daycare providers, etc.; what his daily routine is like; any holiday traditions he celebrates with you or other family members.
- The nature of the dispute: What kind of custody and placement arrangements you want; what your understanding is of the other parent’s proposal; why you disagree with each other; what compromises you might be willing to make; what kind of custody and placement arrangements your child would like and why.
- Any relevant third parties or third-party information that could influence the investigation: Witnesses who could testify in favor of your position; names and addresses of school personnel, daycare providers, or pediatricians that might have relevant records or information.
Sometimes, GALs provide written questionnaires for parties to complete and return in lieu of a lengthy personal interview. If so, you can consult with your attorney about how to best provide information in response to the questionnaire. However, the GAL will still want to meet with you just to get a sense of your personality and to discuss your child and your case.
At the close of your first meeting, the GAL might also ask you to gather specific documents or information. If so, you should cooperate with your attorney to ensure the GAL gets everything he or she needs. The GAL might also ask you to sign authorizations that will allow them to gather information or records directly from the source. If this is the case, you can consult with your attorney, but generally you will want to cooperate with the GAL’s requests.
Finally, the GAL might schedule a home visit and, if your children are school age or older, it is likely the GAL will want to meet the children as well.
Preparing for the Home Visit
If your case is in a county that requires a custody and placement evaluation by a county social worker, it is likely the GAL will do a joint visit with the social worker. If a custody and placement evaluation has not been ordered in your case, the GAL will likely come visit you alone or possibly with a secretary or paralegal from his or her office who can assist with taking notes or pictures.
In general, here are some tips to consider regarding the GAL’s home visit:
- Photos & Videos: The GAL or social worker may wish to take photographs or videos during the home visit. This is not unusual—particularly if the other parent is alleging a party’s home is unsuitable for the children. It is important to ensure your home is clean, orderly, and kid-friendly prior to the visit for this reason.
- Surprise Drop-Bys vs Scheduled Visits: Most times, the GAL will arrange the visit in advance. In other cases, the visit may be a surprise if there is a reason to try to catch the parent off-guard (for example, if there is an allegation that the parent drinks too much or frequently leaves the children home alone). Assuming the visit is scheduled in advance, you should ask the GAL if they would like the children to be present or not. Often times, the GAL likes to see the children in their home and likes to gauge their interaction with their environment. It can also make children more comfortable to meet the GAL in their own home where they can proudly show the GAL their bedrooms and introduce them to family pets.
- Level-Playing Field: The guardian ad litem may also decide to visit both parents’ homes so the investigation seems even handed, even where there has not necessarily been an issue raised as to the living conditions at the other parent’s home.
- Short Duration: Expect the home visit to be of fairly short duration, anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes, or so, depending on whether the guardian ad litem plans to talk or interview the children during the visit.
- Third Parties Can Be Present: While one would technically have a right to have their attorney present during the home visit, usually the visits are arranged in advance with the consent of the attorneys and there is no reason for the attorneys to be present during the home visit. The GAL may also want to meet other adults or individuals who live at the home with the children such as stepparents or stepsiblings. Such people should be present at the home visit if requested by the GAL.
Who should NOT be present: There are other people who should not be present during the home visit if it will create issues for the GAL or will complicate the situation. For example, if the parent has a new boyfriend or girlfriend that does not generally associate with the children, he or she should not be included in the home visit. Likewise, nosey grandparents or next-door neighbors should not participate in the home visit unless the GAL has expressly requested their presence. Finally, overly friendly or aggressive pets should be safely put away during the home visit so that they do not jump up on or injure the GAL or his assistants.
Tips for Child Preparation
Although in some scenarios, a guardian ad litem might elect to choose to conduct an interview with a child in their own office, they may wish to schedule a home visit instead to see the children in their own environment as it’s less intimidating for the child.
Questions a Guardian ad Litem Will Typically Ask a Child During an Interview
GALs will often ask questions geared toward two purposes: (1) putting the children at ease, and (2) gathering information. If you have more than one child, depending on their ages, the GAL may choose to interview them separately or together. Sometimes the GAL will offer the children a puzzle or art supplies so that the children can “fidget” with something and feel less preoccupied. The GAL will try to make the interview very positive and conversational.
To help put the child at ease, the GAL may ask questions about:
- School—What subjects do they like? What do they like to take for lunch? Who is their teacher
- Friends—Who are their friends? What do they like to do together?
- Interests—Do they play any sports? What video games do they like? Do they play an instrument? Are they in any clubs or organizations?
- Family—Who are the members of their family? Do they have pets? Do they take trips to visit family members?
The GAL may also inter-mix “getting to know you” questions with “fact gathering” questions such as:
- What do you like to do with your Mom?
- What are some things your Dad is good at?
- What time do you have to go to bed at your Mom’s house?
- Who helps you with homework—your mom or your dad?
Finally, GALs will generally ask children the following questions:
- What did your parent(s) tell you about why you are meeting with me?
- What did your parent(s) tell you to tell me?
- Is there anything your parents told you not to tell me?
GALs typically will NOT explicitly ask children who they want to live with.
Preparing a Child for the Home Visit
Sometimes the GAL will meet the children separately before scheduling a home visit. Other times, the GAL may wish to meet the children contemporaneous with a home visit. Either way, you can help your child prepare for the home visit much as you would help them prepare to meet any guest in your home.
Rest assured, an experienced GAL has “seen it all” and will not hold it against you if your children behave like children at the home visit. After all, that is the point: To observe the children’s behavior in their own home.
It is normal to be nervous but remember: the GAL wants what is best for your children—you are allies in that goal. And now that you know what to expect and how to prepare for the GAL investigation, you can focus less on your fear of the unknown and more on your children’s best interests!