Parents in a North Carolina Child Custody case often ask if their child can testify in Court to tell the Judge where he or she wants to live or to describe good or bad traits about each parent. As a general rule, children will rarely, if ever, be a sworn witness and offer testimony to the Court. However, there is a method under which a child can have his or her voice heard by the Court – through a Guardian Ad Litem, often referred to as a “GAL”.
A Guardian Ad Litem is an attorney appointed to protect the interests of party that may not be able to represent their own interests due to age or own incapacity. The Latin phrase “ad litem” translates to “for the suit,” so a Guardian Ad Litem literally means a guardian for the suit. A Guardian Ad Litem can be appointed in any type of case, but perhaps the most common application is a Contested Child Custody matter.
In North Carolina Child Custody cases, a Guardian Ad Litem may be appointed if there is concern that the interest of a child needs to be protected. A typical situation where a GAL is appointed are in cases that involve allegations of child abuse, drug or alcohol abuse by either or both parents, or in situations that pose a high risk to the well-being of the child. GAL’s can be appointed in lower risk situations as well, and are often utilized where there are drastically different allegations made by each parent as a means to determine which parent is offering the most accurate account. In either situation, the Guardians role is to serve as the child’s advocate in Court and to argue for the best interests of the child, without consideration as to how those concerns affect either parent.
If the Child Custody case does not settle and goes to Court, there will be 3 parties to the action, each parent (or those acting in loco parentis), and the GAL such that the GAL will be able to offer argument to the Court on behalf of the child and for the child’s best interests.
A GAL may be appointed in a North Carolina Child Custody Case upon motion of either parent, upon motion of an interested party in the case, or even upon the Court’s own motion. Once a Guardian Ad Litem is appointed, the Guardian will conduct an extensive investigation which often includes multiple interviews with the child, the parents involved, and any medical providers, teachers, or other persons with relevant knowledge of the case. Typically, once the Guardian has completed their investigation, the Court will ask for the Guardian’s recommendation as to what is in the best interests of the children. Often this includes a proposed custody schedule or parenting rules that will govern how the parents will interact with one another or with the child. While a Guardian’s recommendation is just one piece of evidence that a Court will receive and consider in a Child Custody trial, typically their recommendation carries a great deal of weight due to the fact that a GAL is a disinterested party solely interested in serving the children involved.
In Mecklenburg County, parties are fortunate to have a variety of options available to them for the appointment of Guardians Ad Litem. Chief among them is the Council for Children’s Rights (CFCR). CFCR is a non-profit organization that, among other roles, serves as an affordable option in cases where a GAL is needed. The Council has staff attorneys that tirelessly represent children’s interests in Child Custody cases but also relies heavily on local attorneys acting as Guardians on a pro bono basis.
Child Custody cases can often be difficult on all parties involved and particularly on the children. In high-conflict and high-risk cases, it is often necessary to appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to ensure children have an advocate for themselves in court. To speak with someone about options in your Child Custody case, including the appointment of a Guardian Ad Litem, please call us at (704) 810-1400 to schedule a consultation.