Perhaps you are in the middle of a high-conflict custody case with your spouse. No matter how hard you try to be reasonable, it seems the two of you always end up back at the same stalemates. In Florida custody cases where the parents are simply unable to reach agreements regarding the children, the court can appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) a Parenting Evaluator, or, in some cases, a Parenting Coordinator to help smooth the process.
Parenting Evaluator vs. Parenting Coordinator
The Parenting Evaluator is appointed by the judge to review the family dynamics in a custody case, then report his or her findings to the court. The goal of all family courts is to ensure the children are protected and will be living in a healthy environment following a divorce. When the parents cannot agree on even the most basic decisions for their children, then a neutral third party, in the form of a Parental Evaluator, may be brought in. There is generally five steps the Parenting Evaluator process will go through which are:
• The Parenting Evaluator will receive a court order from the parents’ attorneys, and will then make contact with the parents. The parents may be required to fill out paperwork, including a parenting survey. At this time, the first meeting between the parents and the Parenting Evaluator will be set up.
• The Parenting Evaluator will meet separately with the parents initially to conduct an interview with each of them, and may have psychological tests done as well.
• After the meeting with the parents, the Parenting Evaluator will conduct child-parent observations with each child and both parents.
• The allegations which have been presented in the custody case will be thoroughly investigated. When necessary, the Parenting Evaluator will speak with third parties, such as other family members, friends, teachers, doctors and the employees at a child’s daycare center.
• The Parenting Evaluator will then conduct a second interview with both parents, discussing his or her observations and findings. The parents have the opportunity to ask questions or have any information clarified during this meeting. If the Parenting Evaluator intends to recommend that a parent participates in anger management classes, parenting classes, substance abuse classes or other classes which will help them be better parents, these recommendations will be given during this meeting.
• Finally, the Parenting Evaluator will prepare a final report, then will meet with the parents’ attorneys to discuss this report.
In the end, the Parenting Evaluator is responsible for recommending a residential schedule, speaking to parenting issues, and discussing his or her evaluation findings. This final evaluation is to be used by the parents and their attorneys as a tool which will help determine the best interests of the children.
How is a Parenting Coordinator Different from the Parenting Evaluator?
A Parenting Coordinator is different from a Parenting Evaluator in that the Coordinator helps parents utilize time with their children, and learn the best way to engage in constructive communication with one another. A Parenting Coordinator can help the parents avoid court and save money by coordinating the necessary services between the attorneys, the mental health professionals, the chemical dependency professionals (when necessary), the Parenting Evaluator and the Guardian ad Litem in an effort to ensure the parents follow through on any court orders. A Parenting Coordinator pulls all the resources together, in the interest of saving time and money.
A Parenting Coordinator may also talk with the children, as well as the teachers, doctors, family members, or daycare operators, as a means of understanding the family dynamics and the issues involved—just like the Parenting Evaluator. Until a court says otherwise, decisions reached by the Parenting Coordinator are binding. The parents can agree, by stipulation, that they will work with a Parenting Coordinator selected by the attorneys. While the Parenting Evaluator is a fact-finder who will help the court make the final decisions for the children, a Parenting Coordinator works with the parents, perhaps to help them implement a Parenting Plan, or make changes in the plan. The Parenting Coordinator and the Parenting Evaluator may be responsible for one or more of the following:
• Helping the child be less stressed during this difficult time;
• Helping the child have a loving relationship with both parents;
• Shielding the child from any conflict between his or her parents;
• Making sure neither parent is attempting parental alienation;
• Helping the child communicate his or her needs;
• Helping the parents communicate with the child;
• Helping the parents communicate with one another;
• Assisting the parents in learning how to effectively co-parent;
• Helping the parents learn to respect one another;
• Helping the parents learn to cooperate for the good of the child;
• Referring parents to appropriate or necessary services;
• Referring the child to appropriate or necessary services;
• Monitoring the behaviors of the parents;
• Ensuring the parents fully comply with court orders;
• Minimizing future litigation between the parents;
• Mediating a Parenting Plan or clarifying an existing Parenting Plan;
• Reporting any non-compliant behaviors to the attorneys, and
• Providing testimony for the child when appropriate.
What is a Guardian ad Litem?
A Guardian ad Litem, also known as a GAL, is a person who is appointed by the court to investigate the solutions to the child custody issues which would be in the best interests of the child. The Guardian ad Litem might tell the court how much contact the child should have with each parent, whether there is substance abuse on the part of one or both parents, and how that substance abuse is affecting the child, and even where the child should primarily live.
The ”best interests of the child” can be fairly subjective, in that a Guardian ad Litem is granted a narrow window into the child’s life, and may not truly understand the entire situation before having to make important decisions on behalf of the child. The Guardian ad Litem is expected to consider the child’s age when making these decisions, as well as the child’s relationship with his or her parents, the current living situations of each parent, and whether the parents appear to be able to cooperate with one another, at least as far as decisions regarding the child are concerned.
Any factor which could affect the parent-child relationship will be looked at by the Guardian ad Litem, prior to making recommendations which can have a significant effect on the child’s future. The goal of the Guardian ad Litem, when making recommendations to the court, is the help the child maintain a strong relationship with both parents—as much as that is possible and practical.
A Guardian ad Litem is generally a mental health professional or an attorney. The GAL will follow the terms of the order issued by the court, whether broad or very specific. As an example, the GAL may be asked to look at the overall situation of the child, then offer broad recommendations regarding the child’s living arrangements, custody, and visitation. The GAL could also be asked to look at only a couple of issues, such as allegations of drug abuse on the part of a parent, or one parent’s ability to work with the other cooperatively, for the good of the child. The Guardian ad Litem will deliver either an oral or written report to the court, and the parents have the right to be present during that report or to receive a written copy of the report.
What if a Parent Has a Problem with a Guardian ad Litem?
If you, as a parent, have a problem with the appointed GAL, and feel he or she is not representing your child’s best interests, you can speak directly to the Guardian ad Litem, or directly with the judge, in writing or orally. If the situation is really concerning, you can file a formal grievance which will go before the Guardian ad Litem Review Board. There are certain responsibilities that you as a parent, and your child’s Guardian ad Litem have regarding your child, including:
• If the Guardian ad Litem is making recommendations which are in direct contradiction to your child’s wishes, the GAL is required to tell the court about what your child prefers.
• Once the report of the Guardian ad Litem is presented to the court, those records are sealed and are only available to the parties involved and to the court. This also means that you, the parent, cannot show the reports to others without the court’s permission.
• You cannot exert an undue influence on your child, meaning you are not allowed to tell your child what to say to the Guardian ad Litem, nor are you allowed to coach your child regarding his or her behavior, in order to gain an advantage. In other words, don’t try to manipulate the system, or it could come back to haunt you.
• You are required to cooperate completely with the GAL, and comply with any reasonable requests.
The following are additional facts regarding Guardian ad Litems, Parenting Coordinators and Parenting Evaluators:
• The Guardian ad Litem is generally considered the “protector” of your child, meaning the court believes the child needs a protector.
• A Guardian ad Litem can be ordered to work with a child or parent who has a disability which makes them difficult to understand.
• The Guardian ad Litem does not work for the child protective services, and can privately speak to family members, friends of the child or parent, child protection workers, counselors, teachers or family members.
• While the judge will take the report from the Guardian ad Litem very seriously, he or she is not bound by the report.
• Since the Guardian ad Litem’s report could potentially hurt your case, it is important that you, the parent, cooperate fully with the GAL.
• Even if the Guardian ad Litem happens to be an attorney, he or she is not acting in the capacity as your child’s attorney.
• A judge will normally appoint a GAL when he or she has reason to believe the child has been threatened, neglected or hurt.
• The court will determine who will pay for the Guardian ad Litem’s services; if you receive public assistance or are considered low income, you most likely will not be responsible for the fees.
A Guardian is Not a Guardian ad Litem
Although those in the court system may occasionally refer to a Guardian ad Litem as the “guardian,” the two are very different. A guardian may be appointed when the judge believes the child could be neglected or harmed by the parents. In effect, the guardian has custody of the child and acts as the child’s parent. Decisions regarding the child, including where he or she goes to school, and how the child is brought up are made by a guardian, and the child lives with the guardian, who also pays for the needs of the child. A Guardian ad Litem does not have custody of the child and is not responsible for the care of the child.
High Conflict Situations, GALS, Parenting Evaluators and Parenting Coordinators
Those with little conflict existing in a custody case are unlikely to see a Guardian ad Litem, a Parenting Coordinator or a Parenting Evaluator during the course of the case. Those with high conflict, are very likely to see one of these professionals during the case. Attorneys may appreciate having a Guardian ad Litem, a Parenting Evaluator or a Parenting Coordinator involved in a high-conflict case, as it allows them to focus on the financial aspects of the case, rather than listening to their client detail the latest conflict.
For children, whose parents have been behaving badly during the custody case—calling the police over trivial matters, exposing the children too immature or impulsive behaviors—the GAL, Parenting Coordinator or Parenting Evaluator can offer significant benefits. In the end, these professionals can significantly decrease the conflict in a custody case, offering benefits all around.