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Guardian ad Litem

Written by Dr. Sarah Anderson
Published on December 6, 2023
Research Highlights

How can Missouri improve its Guardian ad Litem system? 

The Missouri Supreme Court has a set of standards for guardian ad litems (GAL) that are meant to be mandatory but function more like guidelines. 

In MO, judges' varying expectations for GALs result in mixed satisfaction levels with their performance. 

There is very little research on how to improve the GAL system. 

Guardian ad Litems are court appointed attorneys usually for minors. 

In MO, there is no defining source of a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) in statute. Instead, statute dictates when GALs must be appointed versus when they may be appointed (Table 1). In 2008, the MO Supreme Court was required to adopt and implement mandatory statewide standards for GALs (RSMo 484.350). There are 14 standards that state that a GAL:

  • must be a practicing lawyer who has taken GAL-specific training 
  • represents the best interest of the child (rather than the child’s wishes or the wishes of a third party) 
  • must meet with the child and the people in their community (teachers, doctors, Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers, etc.) 
  • participate in court meetings and case-related activities (e.g. development and negotiation of a parenting plan) 
  • keep the child up to date about what is happening in court 
  • has access to all the child’s reports and records that are relevant to the case  
  • recommends to the court based on their findings what they believe is the course of action that is in the child’s best interest (MO Courts 2011) 

Even though they may perform similar actions, GALs are not social workers nor are they mediators who resolve disputes between parties (MO Bar Assoc 2020). 

Table 1. The following are situations in which a GAL must be appointed (right) or may be appointed based on either request or the judges determination (left) MO Bar Assoc 2020. 

Optional Appointment  Mandatory Appointment 
  • Contested Custody, Visitation, or Child Support  
  • Grandparent Visitation  
  • Best Interest of the Child  
  • Civil Action by Minors  
  • Mentally or Physically Infirm Persons  
  • Probate Matters 

 

  • Cases of alleged child abuse or neglect 
  • Termination of Parental Rights 
  • Conflicting Interests 
  • Minor, Mentally Ill, or Otherwise Incompetent Parent 
  • Ex Parte Order of Protection 
  • Suits Against Infants 
  • Civil Action Against Minors 

Experience with GALs and expectations of GAL are not uniform.  

In MO, 40% of judges usually adopt the recommendation of GALs while about 60% sometimes adopt the recommendation. If the appointment of GALs was discretionary, 40% of judges would appoint fewer GALs. One in four judges have removed GALs from a case for failure to perform their duties. Half of the judges reported that the availability of GALs was a problem in their court, but almost all judges agreed that GALs are not paid enough (MO Bar Assoc 2020). 

This variation in experience with GAL is partly because judges have non-uniform expectations for GALs. There is broad disagreement on how often a GAL should 

  • interview collateral parties  
  • prepare a parenting plan   
  • prepare a written report  
  • mediate a resolution to the case 
  • oppose an agreed to parenting plan 
  • make home visits 
  • meet with a child immediately regardless of the facts of the case (Supplemental Figure 1; MO Bar Assoc 2020) 

Supplemental Figure 1. Judges have varying expectations of GALs when it comes to interviewing collateral parties, preparing a parenting plan, preparing a written report, mediating a resolution to the case, opposing an agreed to parenting plan, making home visits, and meeting with a child immediately regardless of the facts of the case.  

Another challenge is uniformly applying standards. Standards for GALs were created to be mandatory and statewide (MO Courts 2009).  However, inconsistent resources between circuits impact GAL’s ability to conform to the standards. Also, the best course of action for an individual child and case may actually conflict with a standard. This creates uncertainty around which standards are mandatory and which standards are to be applied to the best of the GALs’ ability and judgement (MO Bar Assoc 2020). 

Finally, the interaction between GALs and other case participants (e.g. the child’s guardians) can be contentious. Judges report that families complain when the GAL does not investigate witnesses they feel are important, does not respond to requests from the family, or is not impartial. These complaints usually come about when families are in court for child custody. Therefore, it is difficult to determine if the complaints are legitimate or if the party is accusing the GAL of bias because the court did not rule in their favor (MO Bar Assoc 2020). 

However, interviews with court participants identified that many do not know that they should bring complaints about their GAL to the judge. Others chose not to voice their complaint due to fear of retribution (MO Bar Assoc 2020). 

There is little literature about how to improve the GAL system.  

Most legal literature debates whether the GAL system should be in place at all, with some in favor (DOJ 2006; Pappalardo 2019) and some against (Ferdele 2011; Prescott 2014).  

One study of the MN state GAL system recommended against continuing to use the services of volunteer GALs. Volunteers were less effective than employees at completing continuing education and maintaining appropriate behavior, boundaries, and expectations as a GAL (MN 2023).  

The report also recommended setting expectations and systems of accountability, strengthening data systems and practices, supporting program staff, ensuring clarity of all court participants roles, and improving communication among all parties (e.g., GALs, program leadership, families) about the roles, responsibilities and policies surrounding the GAL (MN 2023). 

An evaluation of GAL laws in MS recommended increasing clarity for GALs by defining the GAL process and their roles and responsibilities, having uniform and easily accessible standards, establishing a clear procedure in appointing the GAL, and deciding which court rules to follow and uniformly applying that decision (Simpson 2015). 

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