Guardians ad Litem, CASA Volunteers, and Child Advocates: A Difference with a Distiction
Under the Georgia Code, juvenile court judges are required to appoint a guardian ad litem for a child who is a party to the proceedings if that child does not have a parent, guardian, or custodian appearing on his or her behalf or if the interests of the child's parent, guardian, or custodian appear to be adverse to the interests of the child. In deprivation cases, a person appointed as a guardian ad litem ("GAL") must have received the requisite training prior to the appointment or be approved by the Office of the Child Advocate.
The GAL may be an attorney or court appointed special advocate ("CASA"). For attorneys, the requisite training is satisfied within existing continuing legal education obligations. The Office of the Child Advocate is exempt from such training, as are attorneys who have practiced as guardians ad litem in juvenile court deprivation proceedings for three or more years and who the Court finds have demonstrated a proficiency in representing children.
Guardians ad litem are appointed by the juvenile court to look into the allegations made by the parties, to speak with each of them, their witnesses, the child, educators, therapists, medical practitioners, relatives, daycare providers, and others who have information that is relevant to the underlying issues and helpful to the GAL in formulating opinions and making recommendations to the Court about what outcome would serve the child's best interest.
CASA’s are lay, volunteer GAL's. They are trained in abuse and neglect (deprivation) cases, juvenile court procedures, and have met the requirements of (and are supervised by) a CASA program.
Child advocates, as the name implies, are charged with advocating for what the child wants. They are attorneys for the children. However, child advocates in Georgia sometimes serve a dual role - functioning as both an attorney for the child and a GAL. See OCGA Section 15-11-98 (a).
Pursuant to OCGA Section 15-11-98 (a), in a proceeding for the termination of parental rights, the court must appoint an attorney to represent the child and may appoint a separate guardian ad litem or a guardian ad litem who may be the same person as the child's attorney. This dual role presents a potential for conflict. Specifically, while a child advocate is supposed to be advocating for what the child wants, what the child wants may be contrary to his or her interest, such as living with a crack-addicted parent - something a GAL would ideally conclude is not in the child's best interest. The Georgia Court of Appeals, however, has held that there is no inherent conflict in the dual role (child advocate / GAL), as "the fundamental duty of both a guardian ad litem and an attorney is to act in the best interests of the party whom they represent." See In the Interest of A. P., et al., children, A08A0372 (GaApp. 2008); In the Interest of A. M. A., 270 Ga. App. 769, 773-774 (2) (607 SE2d 916) (2004); Paul v. Smith, Gambrell & Russell, 267 Ga. App. 107, 110 (599 SE2d 206) (2004). ("A lawyer should always act in a manner consistent with the best interests of his client.") (Citation and punctuation omitted.)
The above said, over the years that I've practiced in Juvenile Court, when there has been a clear conflict between what the child wanted and what was in the child's best interest, the child advocate often (and in the author's humble opinion, rightly and ethically) opted out of his or her role as GAL and asked the Court to appoint an independent GAL. Even when the child advocate did not relinquish his or her dual role, a parent or an attorney on his or her behalf has stepped up and requested an independent GAL, and it has been my observation that such request, when it has a reasonable basis, is generally granted.
Despite differences in training, background, and duties, GALs, CASA volunteers, and Child Advocates all have an important role to play in ensuring that deprived children know healthy, happy, peaceful futures - ones without pain, ones full of promise, and ones that portend a productive tomorrow.