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Guardian ad litem keeps ‘best interests’ of the child in focus in divorces

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Divorce

Someone once told me that time is the great equalizer. We all get 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks a year. None of us know when our time here will end.  How we choose to spend our time will determine whether or not our life will be satisfying, rewarding, or meaningful.

I recently watched a video that analogized our lives to a glass jar. In the video there were three containers; one with sand, one with pebbles, and one with larger rocks. The sand was used to represent the insignificant things in life such as watching our favorite television shows, arguing over insignificant things, or scrolling through Instagram. The pebbles represented materially important things like our jobs, our homes, and our cars. The large rocks represented the most important things like our passions, our friends, and our families.

The point is: if we fill our jars full with sand, we will have not have room in our jars for the larger rocks. If we waste our allotted time on things that are really insignificant, we won’t have time for the things that truly matter.

Often, as legal professionals, it is easy to fall into the trap and become callous to the emotionally charged situations our clients are facing. However, it is our duty as advocates to help clients focus on the issues and people that really matter.

While they rarely admit as much, parties to divorce proceedings sometimes take for granted their relationships with their children. In the midst of sending attorneys into court to litigate over silly things such as who will get which extension cord and how much money your spouse will get in support each month, the things that truly matter get lost.

Because July is Child Centered Divorce Month, I wanted to write an article that would help put the child’s perspective of divorce into focus, rather than in the rear-view mirror. It is my hope that this article will draw awareness to the children’s best interest and help people remember what is truly important, because all it takes is one small moment to create a huge impact in a child’s life.

Best interest factors

As the Child Welfare Bureau correctly states in its article titled, Determining the Best Interests of the Child, there is no standard definition of best interests of the child that is applied in all States. However, courts look to a series of factors which are designed to promote the well-being of the child as well as the family unit.

Factors vary from state to state, but overall, some of the general factors include:

  • the wishes of the child’s parent or parents;
  • the wishes of the child;
  • the interaction and interrelationship of the child with her parents;
  • the mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
  • and the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate a close and continuous parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent.

It is so important to keep these factors in mind when we are helping clients as future legal professionals.

If you were to ask a majority of family law judges what their primary concern is in divorce proceedings that have minor children involved, I would bet that most of them would say it is one of their primary goals to ensure that attorneys and parties are staying on task in terms of facilitating a joint parenting agreement or a custody agreement so as to stabilize and help the children adjust accordingly. A majority of family judges would also probably say that a main concern is the safety and well-being of the minor children involved.

However, in some cases neither parties nor their attorneys can agree on what is in the best interests of the minor children and that is when judges will utilize a GAL, or a Guardian ad Litem.

The importance of a GAL or child representative

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is quoted in an opinion saying, “There is a presumption that fit parents act in best interests of their children.” But what happens when fit parents do not act within the best interests of their children? What happens when their jar is full of sand? What happens when that judgment become clouded with emotion?

That is when the appointment of a GAL can be so pivotal. The Guardian ad Litem can have one of three roles:

  • advocate for the minor child’s wishes;
  • champion for the minor’s best interests;
  • or factfinder for the court.

One of the most influential people in my life was the woman who was appointed as Guardian ad Litem during my parents’ proceeding. For the first time I felt like someone heard what I was saying and fought hard for what was best for me. She talked honestly with me about my hopes for my family in the future.

Now that I am an adult, and an aspiring legal professional myself, I know and understand what it truly means to do what is in a child’s “best interest” and it is my hope that this article has shed some light on the importance of keeping those factors in mind at all times in disputes involving minor children.

We all have the ability to accomplish anything, truly anything, if we use our time wisely and remember what is truly important in our relationships, in our personal lives, and in our professional careers. We can truly make a difference in the lives of children by simply keeping our jars full with the things that really matter.

Aly Harms Aly Harms is a rising 2L at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. Before attending law school, she worked as a paralegal at Reich, Jumbeck & Stole, L.L.P., a family law office located in Will County, Illinois. She is currently a Judicial Extern at the 12th Judicial Circuit Court and hopes to practice there one day.