It is common for newborns, toddlers and teens to have their own pediatrician, and eventually, their own dentist. But most parents don’t plan for their young child to have their own lawyer. Yet that is what happens when parents are in divorce court and one or both of them accuse the other of abusing or neglecting the child.

It is common for newborns, toddlers and teens to have their own pediatrician, and eventually, their own dentist. But most parents don’t plan for their young child to have their own lawyer. Yet that is what happens when parents are in divorce court and one or both of them accuse the other of abusing or neglecting the child.

The lawyer that the judge must appoint under these circumstances is a guardian ad litem, or GAL.
The GAL is licensed by the state supreme court, just as all practicing lawyers are, and in addition, they have specialized GAL training. 

After being appointed to represent a child, the GAL conducts an investigation to get a more complete understanding of the allegations of abuse or neglect and of the problems being experienced by the child and the family. This investigation includes interviewing the child and each of the parents to ascertain their actions, wishes, feelings, attachments and attitudes, interviewing witnesses who have contact with or knowledge of the family such as day care providers, teachers, grandparents, therapists and neighbors and reviewing educational records, medical records, mental health records, children’s division reports, substance abuse treatment records and law enforcement reports. 

Once the GAL has gained a working knowledge of the facts of the case and the family dynamics and has concluded her investigation, this lawyer makes recommendations to the parents’ attorneys and to the judge. These recommendations must be clearly focused on furthering the best interests of the child, even if that means making one or both of the parents angry or sad.

For example, if the GAL determines that one or both of the parents are abusing or neglecting the child, the child's attorney may recommend counseling for the child and the parents, testing to determine the presence or absence of drugs or alcohol in a parent’s system, substance abuse treatment and psychological evaluations. It may also be recommended that contact between the harming parent and the child be limited, supervised or withheld until that parent demonstrates he or she is no longer a threat to the child’s wellbeing. 

Inside the courtroom, the GAL participates fully in all court hearings, which may mean testifying before the court, filing petitions, motions and parenting plans, making objections and having to subpoena, examine and cross examine witnesses.

Because the GAL has access to so much information about the facts and the family dynamics, the judge usually gives the GAL’s recommendations considerable weight when making his or her final order.

But if the parents each already have an attorney, why does the child need his or her own attorney? After all, don’t the parents know what is best for their child? Don’t they have the child’s best interests at the forefront of their minds? Won’t they instruct their attorneys to do what is best for their child? The answer is usually yes – and no.
Divorce can be, and usually is, taxing to parents and children on several levels – emotionally, economically, physically. It can be difficult for parents under the stress of a divorce to be guided only by what the child wants and needs in the divorce. The otherwise good judgment and decision making of a parent can also be impaired by grief, anger, substance abuse and financial strain that often accompany divorce. 

For these reasons, children can be vulnerable during the time the family is breaking apart, and their needs and best interests overlooked. 

When poor decision-making that negatively impacts the child is temporary and relatively short lived, the child may not be seriously harmed and can be expected to bounce back quickly. But when parents get stuck in the quagmire of chronic anger, depression, grief or a desire to retaliate against their divorcing spouse, the child may become a weapon in his parent’s warfare, and serious psychological and emotional harm, or abuse, can occur.

One kind of serious psychological and emotional abuse is sometimes referred to as parental alienation. It is unique to high-conflict divorces and custody disputes.

Parental alienation tends to occur when one of the two parents is extremely angry and resentful of the other and desires to retaliate against him or her. In doing so, the retaliating parent might try to severely limit the child’s contact with the other parent, even when the other parent does not present a danger to the child. Or the parent might convince the child that the other parent is evil, no longer loves the child, has abused or abandoned the child or is to blame for all of the retaliating parent’s troubles. 

The result is that the child turns against the targeted parent in order to please the alienating parent. Once the alienation reaches a certain point, it may be difficult or impossible to reverse, and permanent damage to the child’s relationship with the alienated parent is done. 

Children who are exposed to this abuse may suffer not only from the loss of the alienated parent, but also from lower self esteem and a more negative outlook toward life. While the “bumps and bruises” from this form of child abuse may not be as apparent as the remnants of physical or sexual abuse, the impact on the child can be just as deep and permanent. 

There are several red flags that parental alienation might be occurring. In addition to telling the child that the other parent is to blame for his or her unhappiness, financial troubles and the breakup of the family, an alienating parent may also schedule activities for the child that interfere with the other parent’s parenting time, “rescue” the child from the other parent when the other parent presents no threat to the child or encourage the child to be angry at the other parent.

One of the duties of the GAL is to identify and address this sometimes less obvious form of child abuse. Divorcing and divorced parents should be on guard against engaging each other in this kind of warfare that results in horrible collateral damage to the children.

If you think this might be happening in your family, seek counseling with a mental health professional.