For hundreds of people in the State of South Carolina the term Guardian ad Litem or GAL has become a daily term used in conversations when talking about their families. Guardians are Court appointed individuals to oversee the “best interest” of a child or adult. At a Cost!
What is a Guardian ad Litem? A guardian can be either an attorney or a private citizen who has taken a course approved by the state to certify these individuals as capable of making good decisions in the interest of their wards. These individuals are appointed by a Family Court Judge, and are appointed in all cases involving children.
Before we begin, let us state that not all Guardian ad Litems are in it for money. On the contrary we have spoken to several GAL’s who have refused to be paid for their services, some where even attorneys. But there are some GAL’s whom we have come across that are in it for profit.
The GAL program was started in Seattle, Washington by Juvenile Court Judge David W. Soukup in 1976. Judge Soukup had insufficient information to make a life-changing decision for a 3-year-old girl who had suffered from child abuse. That’s where the idea came from: These children, who had experienced abuse or neglect, needed trained volunteers speaking up in the courtroom for their best interests.
Judge Soukup’s model later turns into the now well known CASA Program nationwide. But as these programs vary from State to State Judge Soukup’s model has changed over the years. With it’s biggest criticisms being lack of training and money profiting.
GAL’s in South Carolina (SC Code § 63-3-810):
The qualifications to become a Guardian ad Litem in South Carolina are very low compared to some States.
- Must be 25 years old or older.
- Must possess a high school diploma or equivalent.
- An attorney guardian ad litem must complete 6 hours of family law continuing legal education (CLE) annually. This CLE must be in the areas of custody and visitation.
- A lay guardian ad litem must complete 9 hours of continuing education for initial qualification. This continuing education must be in the areas of custody/visitation (6 hours) and substantive law and family court procedure (3 hours). A lay guardian ad litem must complete 6 hours of continuing education annually in the areas of custody and visitation.
- A lay guardian ad litem must observe 3 contested custody hearings prior to serving as a guardian ad litem.
For individuals who are being placed to help make life changing decisions for children, there seems to be no requirements of educational backgrounds or even have children of their own. One large criticism to the modern GAL program is that Attorney’s seem to make up the majority of Guardian ad Litems in South Carolina. What also is noticeable is that there seems to be two completely different standards for GAL’s, one for Attorneys and one for Lay Guardians.
Attorney Guardians also have different guidelines as to their duties, from Lay Guardians. An attorney GAL does not have to meet with the children more than once and at no certain length of time, where a Lay Guardian is required to meet with the children at least once a month, just for example.
Another interesting fact is that there is no oversight for GAL’s in South Carolina. There is entity which that one can complain when you feel a GAL is not performing their duties or is showing a bias, except the Family Court Judge.
Many argue that Attorney’s should be prohibited from being GAL’s as they have a clear conflict of interest in cases.
Guardians for Adults:
Guardian ad Litems are not simply appointed to children, many are appointed to Adults who are legally found to be unable to care or make decisions for themselves.
A recent film on Netflix called “I Care A Lot” shows how a crooked GAL can come in and take over a persons life. In this film, which is to certain points over dramatized, shows how a GAL becomes appointed to an elderly woman and then begins to deconstruct this woman’s life and sell off her possessions, while keeping the profits from it. This film does a good job at showing how some GAL’s have made a program intended to aid society into a for profit business. A real case aspect of this is the Brenda Bryant story. The GAL in that case profits from the money and has denied the parents access to their own daughter.
Here in South Carolina the program is called South Carolina’s Vulnerable Adult Guardian ad Litem Program and was in 2011. Here is the description given on it’s own website as to the duties of a VAGAL:
Guardians ad Litem are responsible for meeting with the adult, reviewing legal, medical, and financial records, and interviewing the adult’s caregivers, family members, friends, and treatment team. GALs prepare a written report that is presented at court. In the report, the GAL makes a recommendation as to what is in the best interest of the vulnerable adult.
What makes this story so to the point is that the South Carolina Legislature has refused or given no thought of placing safeguards to prevent GAL’s from overstepping their duties or to ensure that GALs are truly doing the right thing. This could be easily done by placing an oversight committee in place for GALs. This would also give people a place to go when they feel they are being wronged by GALs and remove that burden from Judges. Not to mention avoid any conflict of interests between a Judge and an attorney GAL.