Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program
Guardian ad Litem Coordinator
Guardians ad litem (GALs) are trained, unpaid, court-appointed advocates “whose goal shall be to safeguard the ward’s best interests and rights” (V.R.F.P. 6(e)(1)) primarily in cases of abuse or neglect (“ the CHINS process”) until a child achieves permanency. GALs provide critical information to the child’s attorney and function as both a collaborator with and a balance to DCF. Their responsibilities include gathering information from all sources close to the child; advocating for services and collaboration; communicating with DCF and the child’s attorney; and ensuring directly or through the child’s attorney that the court is informed of all relevant information.
A judge appoints a GAL volunteer for all CHINS cases and occasionally in other dockets including delinquency, divorce, parentage, and mental health. The GAL becomes an official part of the judicial proceedings, reviews all of the information collected, develops recommendations, and ensures the child’s best interests are advocated for throughout the process.
Each case is different, but in every case a GAL needs to know the people involved, obtain relevant information about the child, and be a zealous advocate for the child either through the child’s attorney or directly. While not every case requires the same work, GALs generally accomplish this by:
· Meeting and communicating regularly with children to foster connection and understanding in order to advocate effectively for their best interests.
· Meeting or otherwise communicating with parents, other family members or caregivers, and service providers such as DCF, school staff, clinicians, therapists, and physicians.
· Advocating for necessary services and collaborative efforts between hearings and throughout the process.
· Informing appropriate parties, including DCF and the child’s attorney, at any time in the CHINS process, of necessary information regarding the safety, well-being, and best interests of the child.
· Ensuring that the court is informed of all relevant information to ensure consideration of the best interests of the child either through the child’s attorney or directly, in accordance with Rule 6 of the Vermont Rules of Family Proceedings.
Training can be broken down into two major areas: pre-service training to prepare a person to start working as a GAL and in-service training to explore issues and build skills.
The initial training is a 32 hours training over 3 days (about 16-20 hours of class time with independent work between classes) that is based around a curriculum developed by the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (National CASA or NCASA) and includes sections specifically developed to provide an overview of the Vermont-specific child protection system. These trainings are done in every county and include guest speakers from DCF, domestic violence advocates, judges, and attorneys. After training is complete there is an individualized mentoring with one or more experienced GALs to provide some “real world” experience. Once a new GAL and her/his mentors feel they are ready they can begin to take new cases.
In-service training takes several forms. There are full day trainings on specialized topics such as working with juveniles in delinquency cases. GALs are also invited to participate in trainings offered by DCF and other agencies, attend statewide workshops, and provided opportunities through the Court Improvement Program and other partners. Finally, there are shorter and less formal trainings such as webinars and monthly brown bag lunches with subject matter experts who present on relevant topics.
GALs that are trained and supported by this program are volunteers and are not paid for the extensive work they do. However, GALs are reimbursed for mileage (at the state rate) and for expenses directly related to their assignments.
While a GAL can be an attorney by profession, when she or he is serving as a GAL he or she is not an attorney for that child or for the case. The child will be assigned an attorney who will be responsible for making all legal arguments throughout a case.
There are several steps to becoming a GAL. First, complete and submit the application. Your application will be forwarded to the coordinator for the county where you would like to work for review. Second, you will have an intensive interview with the coordinator (and potentially some of the court staff) that will ask difficult (and often personal) questions to get a sense of whether or not this would be a good fit for you. It will also be a great time for you to ask some of the questions you have, and we encourage you to ask anything that you want to know. Third, there will be an extensive background check that will include state and federal criminal background check, abuser registry, and sexual offender registry. Fourth, the pre-service training is an opportunity for you to learn about the work and to make certain that it what you want to do. Fifth, there is a mentoring process where you will shadow one or more experienced GALs to meetings and court to see what the actual work entails.
When you and your mentors think you’re ready, you will be assigned your first case.
There are no academic or professional credentials required, and we encourage anyone committed to helping Vermont’s most vulnerable children to apply. While our volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds they all are citizen volunteers are nonjudgmental, good communicators, organized, objective, flexible, willing to continue to learn, willing to be assertive without being confrontational, and who care immensely about children.
While it is hard to quantify because each case is different, you can expect to spend on average 5-10 hours per month per child you serve for the duration of a case. However, in the early stages of a case you will likely spend more time than this, and as the case moves on you will likely be more towards the low range. Because you are the best judge of your time, GALs are encouraged to only take those cases for which they know they have the time to do the work required.
Abuse and neglect cases can take up to two years. Since this is already a traumatic time for a child we ask that any volunteer make a two year commitment. This time commitment insures that the GAL will be a consistent supportive presence for the child throughout the case and will minimize the risk of further instability for the child. While we know that events may occur in a volunteer’s life that may make this impossible, please keep this in mind as you consider becoming a GAL.
Absolutely. Our volunteers include many people who also have a full time job. However, please note that hearings are held during regular business hours which mean you should clear this with your employer prior to becoming a GAL. The program can verify your volunteer hours if your employer sponsors a community service program. You will also want to make sure to maintain a caseload that works for you and your employer.
The training schedule is located here and will be frequently updated as more details become available. While you can attend any training that fits your schedule, they are offered in almost every county so there should be one in or within 1 county from where you live soon!
The GAL works largely independently, but most counties have a coordinator that is a paid staff member who can provide assistance. The central office can always be contacted to provide assistance to a GAL, and is a good resource for extreme cases or when there is no coordinator available. Most counties also have brown bag lunches which may provide short trainings, but are also a good opportunity to debrief and articulate concerns.
Only the court can assign a Guardian ad Litem and only in certain circumstances. While a GAL will be assigned in every abuse and neglect case (CHINS case), the court will assign a GAL in other cases only under very specific circumstances as proscribed by law. We cannot assign a GAL to a case even if we want to.
We also do not remove GALs from a case. If you believe that a GAL is not performing his or her responsibilities you can motion (either directly or through your attorney) to have her or him removed, and the judge will decide if that is appropriate. Please remember that a GAL’s role is to advocate for the best interests of a child throughout a case, and to determine that best interests independently. Disagreeing with the GAL, not having the GAL advocate for you, and not liking the GAL is not a reason to have the GAL removed.
No. While the term Guardian ad Litem is used in many types of cases, it does not necessarily mean that a GAL is from our program. We train and support GALs primarily for CHINS and delinquency cases, and if a GAL is assigned in any other type of case (such as a probate case or domestic proceeding) that GAL may or may not be from our program.
In most other states (and especially in the 38 states that are part of National CASA) the people who are assigned to advocate for a child’s best interests in abuse and neglect cases are volunteers. Some states call those volunteers Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) to distinguish between them and others who are assigned in different types of cases. In Vermont we do not distinguish between the volunteer GALs we train and support primarily for CHINS and delinquency cases and attorneys who may be assigned in other cases as GALs. However, whether the GAL is from our program or assigned the role is a volunteer role.
If you believe a GAL is not meeting his or her responsibilities please contact the central office at (802) 828-0625 or JUD.VermontGAL@vermont.gov. We will most likely forward the complaint to the appropriate coordinator, but may respond directly depending on the issue. Please keep in mind that we do not assign or remove GALs, except in extreme cases and that disagreeing with or disliking a GAL is not misconduct.