Approximately 20 years ago, Judge Herman Knell asked me to submit my name to become a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. I submitted my name and application to the Presiding Judge of the Domestic Relations Division of the Court, along with the recommendation of Judge Knell. I went before an advising committee and then went through the educational training classes before finally becoming a GAL.
My name was placed on the list of GALs, and the judges could choose a GAL to assist them better adjudicate the best interests of children who have an interest in a particular proceeding coming before the Court. To remain on the list, an attorney serving as a GAL must attend at least three continuing education courses per year as a refresher. The GAL is paid a fee set by the Judge that the parents must pay. If the parents are unable to pay, the judge may appoint the attorney on a pro bono basis.
The GAL serves as the eyes and ears of the Court. Upon appointment, he/she services the case, researching the background of the parents, the number of children and their ages. The GAL visits the family home or the respective homes of the parents (if they live separately). The GAL investigates all aspects of the family home(s)—living space, living condition(s)—and a visit may be made to the school(s) and the grades the child(ren) has earned are collected. An investigation is made of anything that affects the well-being of the child(ren).
After the GAL garners as much information as possible, he/she will also interview the child(ren) extensively. This is to gain as more information as possible to report to the Court. An observation is also made of the child(ren) to determine if there has been any physical abuse upon the child(ren) when in the care of either of the parents. During the interview, the GAL may even ask the child(ren) how they are treated by either or both parents. Depending upon their age, the child(ren) may be asked who they would prefer living with. After the GAL has fully investigated the parents, the children, their respective homes, schools and any other factors potentially affecting the well-being of the child(ren, the GAL reports back to the Court.
At that time, the Court will make its determination which parent the child(ren) will live with; that parent is called the “custodial parent.” The “non-custodial” parent is granted visitation rights. Based on the GAL’s recommendation, the Court sets the times and days that the “non-custodial” parent shall have for visitation. They will usually alternate the child visitation for birthdays and the birthday of the child(ren) between the parents. The Court further determines the time for visitation for the birthday of each parent.
The GAL’s report also helps the Court determine where the visitation(s) takes place and the amount of time allotted to the “non-custodial” parent. If there is a problem with who picks up and/or drops off the child(ren) (after the visit), the court will make a determination based upon the recommendation of the GAL The GAL does not set the amount of the child support that the non-custodial parent pays for the benefit of the child(ren)—the Court does, generally following a guideline set up based upon the ability of the “non- custodial” parent to pay based upon his (her) earnings and the number of children who are entitled to support. Over the child(ren)’s lifetime, any change in circumstance in the family make-up may cause a modification of any prior order usually upon the recommendation of the GAL.
The GAL has a very important role as the eyes and ears of the Court—and in the life of children living through divorce, as I saw firsthand.