Guardian Ad Litem
By: Laura Ginsberg
Another important piece of the 25th Judicial Circuit's unified family court program is the use of a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent children during cases involving custody or placement. Frank Schweitzer, Dawn Clayton and Mark Kriebs are among the attorneys working at GALs in the 25th Judicial Circuit. They work to represent the best interests of the child during hundreds of cases each year– in both in private divorce, paternity and custody cases, and cases dealing with children in the foster care system. During private cases, GALs act independently from the other parties involved. They conduct interviews with the child and their parents, and also investigate any allegations of abuse or neglect that may exist. They then make a recommendation to the court based on what they feel is best for the child. "So many times, when parties get involved in a court battle, they are concerned with what they want and what would make them happy, and sometimes the children get shuffled into the corner," said Schweitzer, who also works as a GAL in the 42nd Judicial Circuit and in private practice in Salem, Mo. "I can look at the case from an outside standpoint. I don't have any preconceived notions about who should have the child." In private cases, GALs often can provide a unique perspective to the other parties involved in the case, and are not bound by the rules of an attorney-client relationship when discussing the case with the child's parents. "It's different than most relationships that attorneys and clients share," said Kriebs, who also works in private practice in Waynesville, Mo. "We are not representing the child's mother or father, and we can talk with them more freely about what we think is a realistic outcome for the case." Schweitzer agreed. "It is much more difficult for an attorney who has been hired to tell a client they are not going to get custody," he said. "A guardian ad litem doesn't have to do what the client wants, he has to do what's best for the child." The unbiased opinion provided by a GAL sometimes leads parties to decide to settle out of court, which allows them to create a parenting plan that works best for them and their children. "The opinion of a guardian ad litem often encourages a settlement," Schweitzer said. "And when parties can settle, it's a good thing because they are more likely to develop a parenting plan that works better for them than what the court would decide. Anytime parties can stay out of court, they are going to save money, and it allows the court more time to hear other cases." By law, a GAL must be appointed by the court to represent children in cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect, and in cases involving children in the Juvenile Division concerning children in state custody. In such cases, GALs work to place children in the best possible environment. "I am an advocate for the children," Clayton, who also works in private practice in Vienna, Mo., said. "In Juvenile Court cases, The state has an idea of what should happen in regards to the children, and the Children's Division has an idea of what should happen with the children, and each has procedures and guidelines to follow. Without a guardian ad litem, the children have no voice. I am there to give them a voice." Clayton adds that sometimes what a child wants, and what is best, are not always the same. For example, a teenaged child may want to live with the parent he believes is most lenient, but he may be better off with the stricter parent. Being a GAL also can be an emotionally taxing job. "Being a guardian ad litem is gratifying because you are helping children, but it's also very emotional," Clayton said. "It's heart wrenching to see some of the things children go through, and it can be frustrating at times." In order to become a GAL, Schweitzer, Kriebs and Clayton had to go through a special, 12-hour training session. They also are required to receive GAL training yearly. Like Clayton, Kriebs and Schweitzer said they are grateful to work in the 25th Judicial Circuit as GALs, because it is an area of law that allows them to have a direct and positive impact on the lives of children. "It truly is satisfying work," Schweitzer said. "At the end of the day, you are advocating for children who really have no voice. It gives you the chance to make a difference in these children's lives."