What children experience in the legal system is something law students often do not personally understand from first-hand experience. Within family law, children often become exposed to the legal system—whether they like it or not. Children who are placed in foster homes, adopted, or attend youth court experience the legal system in different capacities. Children in divorce cases, however, have different experiences.
Through divorce cases, children are often represented by guardians ad litem—attorneys on the case specifically to represent the children—and inevitably are exposed to court through the process of their parents’ divorce. It is likely the child will meet with the guardian ad litem often in order for the attorney to best know the child’s needs to best represent them.
Guardians ad litem meet with the children they represent and ask them questions they feel they need answers to in order to have the best knowledge regarding the care the children are receiving, which parent is best fit for custody, or to determine why the child isn’t receiving the best care from one, or both, of the parents.
As law students, the opportunity to get involved early to help children through divorce cases is often available through law schools. Many law schools provide clinics where the student has the opportunity to represent children as guardians ad litem while having a professor over the clinic guide the student through the case.
Through guardian ad litem clinics, the student is the one who helps determine how the child’s best interests are met through the divorce proceedings.
Rising 3L Hailey Faulkner of Mississippi College School of Law saw tangible benefits through taking her school’s guardian ad litem clinic last semester. “Participating in the Guardian ad Litem clinic taught me patience, understanding, and the importance of listening,” she said. “Some of the people I worked with were not always the most willing to help, so being patient with them and trying to connect by listening to their stories made a huge difference in the success of my case.”
While divorce is hard on children, Brady Allen, a rising 3L at Mississippi College School of Law, offers a unique perspective on his childhood with divorced parents. “Being a product of a divorced family and becoming a law student gives me a somewhat unique perspective by first experiencing divorce as a child and now fully understanding the legalities of divorce as a student,” he said. “To be honest, at three years old, I did not fully understand what was happening. My parents did an amazing job of keeping me insulated from all the things that were actually going on and it prevented divorce from drastically effecting my childhood. They kept my life as normal as possible and never showed me disputes.
“I think the lesson there for students of the law and GALs is that young kids just want, and need, to just be kids. Keep them insulated from the heartbreaks of divorce and it will allow it to not have a lasting effect on their lives. It worked for this kid and I thank my parents and the legal teams around me for that.”
Divorce can be a nasty experience for all parties involved, especially children. As law students, it is important to understand the children’s needs and take advantage of opportunities while still in school to learn how to handle such cases for our future practice.
July is National Child-Centered Divorce Month.