By Colleen Honquest
Dealing with a custody case in Family Court? Is there a history of abuse/coercive control in your marriage? There are things that you should know…
Over past decades, the use of Guardians Ad Litem (GALs) in custody cases involving domestic violence has come under fire. Problems identified by the critics include violations of parents’ due process rights, GALs usurping the role of judges, and the failure of GALs to protect children from abusive fathers. In fact, some scholars now advocate the abolition of the GAL system, while others propose significant systemic reforms. (This is an excerpt from the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP)2. “The Problematic Role of Guardians Ad Litem in Custody and Abuse Cases”. Grant No. 2011-TA-AX-K006)
If you are instructed or feel that you would like to ask for a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) to help you with your parenting agreement in your divorce case, understand what you are agreeing to and what the process entails. Take the time to research what the process will look like and know the potential pitfalls in hiring a GAL to determine your child(ren)’s placement and parenting time. The following information is an example of one father’s experience with a GAL during his divorce. The GAL was appointed to aid in the determination of parental allocation in his children’s placement and the Joint Parenting Agreement.
Names have been changed:
Tom was a good father and did much of the parenting with his three children- ages 9, 12, and 16, all girls. He took them to their school and extracurricular activities and prepared their meals. He was “hands on” with his children during the marriage and he wanted to ensure that he remained in their lives and had at least half of the parenting time with his girls after he and his wife divorced. Kari, his wife, had been emotionally abusive throughout the majority of their 23-year marriage. Nothing Tom did was good enough and Kari was often both emotionally and even, at times, physically abusive. Tom and his girls were close, and he felt that nothing could ever change this. Tom and Kari’s marriage fell apart after Tom found that Kari had two affairs. Kari then admitted that she wanted to move away with her lover to Colorado and take their children with her. Kari filed for divorce and she and Tom entered into the family court system. Tom immediately realized that Kari’s difficult personality and her spite for Tom would cause her to start interfering with his parenting time with the girls.
Tom began experiencing issues trying to spend time with his girls. Kari started the alienation process of their girls from Tom by using calculated small steps. For example, Kari would have their older daughter interfere with Tom’s visitation time by instructing her to ask the younger daughters to go shopping with her when it was Tom’s time with the younger girls. Kari also scheduled activities and created excuses so that the girls would be busy and could not spend time with Tom. Feeling frustrated, Tom asked his lawyer how to remedy the situation. His lawyer told him about Guardian Ad Litems (GALs) and how these court professionals (usually lawyers) are used to review issues with children and parental allocation time in divorce. Tom’s attorney advised Tom that he should go ahead and hire a GAL and did not fully explain to Tom the pros and cons of the GAL system. Tom asked for a GAL thinking that he would be given an advocate who would objectively review their situation and understand that there were no reasons (criminal or abuse) that he should be given anything less than 50% of the parenting time with his children. However, what Tom was not told is that GALs have very little professional training to become a GAL for the court (other than already being a lawyer) and they typically have less than 7 hours of mental health training and often NO domestic abuse training. In High Conflict cases, this is a lethal combination as the spouse with the difficult personality gets right to work to convince the GAL that they are the superior parent and that the other parent is sub-optimal and often that they should be cut out of the child’s life completely. GALs with little or no idea what personality problems and disorders look and act like, are often immediately drawn in to the abusive spouse’s web of deceit. This does not even take into account that GALs have no idea what a victim of toxic stress and domestic abuse looks like and the behaviors that they often exhibit as they enter into the family court system. GALs and Judges often view the victims of abuse as crazy or overly emotional as these victims are desperate for someone to listen and to help them stay in their children’s lives. In Tom’s case, the GAL seemed to instantly bond with Tom’s wife, Kari, and by the time she interviewed Tom she was accusatory towards Tom and even defensive of Kari. The GAL came in and interviewed both him and his wife to determine placement and parenting time. Tom had never been convicted (or even accused) of domestic violence or any criminal behavior. He had been a fully engaged father who loved his children and was now divorcing his wife who, by the way, had had two affairs with other men. The GAL (a well-known local lawyer) proceeded to accuse him of abusive behavior towards his ex-wife and seemed to project onto him all the behaviors that Kari had done to him. After finding out about Kari’s affairs, Tom had become suspicious of Kari and tried, on two occasions, to record her phone conversations while in their home. The GAL found out about Tom trying to record Kari’s phone calls and ordered that Tom be forced to move out of the marital home immediately and to find an apartment. He could take only a few personal possessions. Later, this GAL also helped to write a Joint Parenting Agreement that completely stripped Tom of any real decision-making ability for his kids.
Colleen Honquest, Divorce Mediator and Certified Divorce Coach
Founder, DivorceMD, LLC.
Colleen is not an attorney nor is the information in this article intended as legal advice. This information is a result of Colleen’s personal experience in a High Conflict Divorce in the family court system and from extensive research in to clients’ rights.
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