A friend of mine recently told me her GAL story. Let's call her Sally. According to Sally, it was getting to the end of her custody evaluation and her son, John, came to her and said that he wanted to stay in Connecticut and didn't want to be with his father out of state.
Sally would like to be able to say this was because of her wonderful parenting skills, and that he preferred to be with her marvelous self. In fact, what primarily influenced John was his attachment to his home and his community as well as his strong relationship with his friends. Simply put, John was a homebody who liked to hang out with the same kids he always hung out with and didn't want any changes.
In response, Sally told John to sit down and write a letter to his GAL and explain how he felt. John went ahead and did that and gave the letter to his GAL. In response, the GAL said that she could not take John's views into consideration and that she was going to make her decision independent of his wishes.
When Sally heard this reaction from the GAL, she immediately went to the custody evaluator in the case and made an appointment for John to speak directly to the doctor. In a session that was often very tearful, John explained how he felt. When the final custody evaluation came out, not only did Sally end up with residential custody, there was a special section in the doctor's recommendations that specifically addressed John's wishes and made sure they were respected.
When I listened to Sally's story, my question was directed towards the GAL. Why didn't the GAL respect John's wishes?
Clearly, the psychiatrist in the case felt that John's concerns were important, so why didn't the GAL think that it was in the best interests of the child to take in account his expressed wishes? This is not unusual in many custody cases--frequently, GALs will simply refuse to listen to or respect what their child clients have to say.
A similar situation occurred in the case of Karyn Gil v. John Gil where Attorney Campbell Barrett of Budlong and Barrett, LLC was the Guardian Ad Litem for the child. When Attorney Barrett was first appointed to the case, he met with the child--Ashley--who was too intimidated by him in their first meeting to really speak to him.
The second time they met, there was a more positive interaction and at the end of the visit, Attorney Barrett gave Ashley his business card and said that he would return her call if she ever reached out to him and called him even if all she wanted to talk about was Harry Potter.
However, when the time came and Ashley called Attorney Barrett with a question, Attorney Barrett couldn't be bothered to call her back.
Continuing to reach out to Attorney Barrett, Ashley then had her therapist Dr. Ginther call on her behalf asking that he call her back. Still, Attorney Barrett didn't call her back. Finally, Ashley wrote a note to Attorney Campbell Barrett asking him to call her and giving him specific times to call, but still he didn't bother to call her back.
When Karyn Gil's attorney asked Campbell Barrett why he didn't call Ashley back his response was that he was too busy with other cases and didn't have time. Does that truly make sense as an answer? If you have so many cases that you are unable to meet the needs of your child clients, shouldn't you resign and let someone else on the over 1000 list of qualified GALs have a chance at employment?
As a side point, not only did Attorney Campbell Barrett completely disregard his client, Ashley Gil's, requests, he also felt comfortable gossiping about her in the open where everyone could hear his remarks. Specifically, during the break in one of the hearings in the case, he engaged in a gossip session out in the corridor with Attorney Emily Moskowitz and Attorney Jeff Mickelson (Karyn's prior attorney in the case) about Ashley's private business, apparently stating that he was going to "spin" the testimony of Ashley's therapist in the case so the outcome of the hearing would go his way. (We know the conversation took place because the maternal grandparents, whom Attorney Campbell Barrett had not yet met, were sitting nearby and heard every word.)
This is hardly the kind of behavior anyone would expect of a family court professional. No wonder none of these cases get resolved properly!
The same situation occurred with the Kathi Sorrentino case in regard to her son, Storm. The Court stated that it wanted to hear Storm's voice and so it appointed Dr. Eric Frazer as the GAL. Storm repeatedly told the Court, told Dr. Eric Frazer, told everyone both verbally and in writing that he wanted remain in the residential custody of his mother.
Nonetheless, his expressed wishes were simply ignored, he was placed in the full custody of his father against his wishes and so eventually he went AWOL and disappeared for a month only returning when his mother was jailed. When the Court asked Dr. Eric Frazer, the GAL, if he had met with Storm, "Have you talked to him at all?", Dr. Frazer's response was, "I haven't been having conversations with Storm..." Well, why not? Aren't you his Guardian Ad Litem? Aren't you supposed to be speaking to the child so the Court can listen to his voice and hear his perspective? What is it with GALs who think they can act with complete independence and disregard of their child clients?
The bottom line is that the GAL system was put into place as a result of a shift in understanding regarding children. It reflected a recognition that the old adage that "Children are to be seen but not heard" fails to acknowledge their equitable right to some measure of self-determination in regard to their lives.
Children need to have an attorney, it was theorized, in order to defend their best interests, and not only that, they need to have their voices heard despite the fact that they are still minors.
Unfortunately, the way GALs are currently playing it, they are continuing to maintain this paternalistic attitude of "father knows best" and carrying on as though it is not important to at least consult with how the children involved feel about the crisis that is going on in their lives and what they would like the outcome to be.
It is important to know that as long as we continue on with the GAL system as it is, children will continue to suffer in silence.