Understanding Guardian Ad Litem

Jun 07 2018

swearing in ceremony for CASA volunteers

by Ashika Sethi

While embarking on the noble journey to become a CASA volunteer can be extremely rewarding, the acronym and jargon-laden lists that come along with working in the foster care system can often make our volunteers stop and say, “wait, what?” Never fear – we at CASA are here to help explain these acronyms and jargon for you!

One of the most frequent questions we get from potential CASA volunteers is, “What is a guardian ad litem”?

The Texas Family Code defines “guardian ad litem” as “a person appointed to represent the best interests of a child. The term includes: (A) a volunteer advocate from a charitable organization described by the court as the child’s guardian ad litem; (B) a professional, other than an attorney, who holds a relevant professional license and whose training relates to the determination of a child's best interests; (C) an adult having the competence, training, and expertise determined by the court to be sufficient to represent the best interests of the child; or (D) an attorney ad litem appointed to serve in the dual role.”

All CASA volunteers in Travis County play the court appointed role of guardian ad litem (GAL) and are sworn in* by a judge and then appointed to a specific case on the child welfare docket. Though not technically a party to the case as a child’s parents or CPS are, GALs still have legal standing in the courtroom. A court order is signed by the judge that gives the GAL this legal standing.

The GAL court appointment entitles CASA volunteers to have access to all records regarding the child’s situation, including medical, therapeutic, educational and other pertinent records. These records are vital to help paint a picture of what the child needs and helps the CASA volunteer to figure out how best to advocate for children in the courtroom.

The main goal of CASA volunteers is to help children reach safe and permanent homes, but our advocacy for children does not stop there.** In training, we teach our volunteers that being a GAL involves speaking up for the best interest of children, and a child’s best interest is all-encompassing. As a GAL, CASA volunteers also advocate for children’s medical, therapeutic, and educational needs so that the child can have the best possible future.

Take a look at the typical month of a CASA volunteer, and you’ll see how we advocate for children when making phone calls to a child’s parent, when sending an email to a CPS worker, or when having a meeting with a first grade teacher about a child’s educational needs.

When asked what being a guardian ad litem means to them, Lydia Garcia, Training Director at CASA, says it’s continuous advocacy with the intention of figuring out what’s best for a child. “For me, guardian ad litem means the ability to have a huge impact on children and families,” says Lydia. “In order to do this job well, we need to be consistent, objective, non-judgmental, and open to ideas that are different from our own.”

For Wendy Morse, our Training Specialist, the role of a GAL is multi-faceted. “Being a guardian ad litem means knowing the child; their needs, desires, strengths and challenges,” says Wendy. “It also means holding their history as you may be the only one on a case that knows the child’s story and has been there since the beginning of the case. It is having a child look at you when they are asked a question about a foster home they lived in a year prior, knowing that you will know the answer. Being a guardian ad litem means having the information from the placement, parents, relatives, school, therapist and child and being able to ensure their experiences are present in a meeting or hearing even if they cannot be there themselves. Being a GAL means knowing how to take all of this information and put it into brief recommendations that address each of the child’s needs. It is thinking outside the box to make recommendations that truly address the needs of the child and family.”

“I became a guardian ad litem because I believe that there is no such thing as ‘other people’s children,’ and that we belong to each other,” says our Child Advocacy Specialist and previous CASA volunteer, Danielle Nevin. “All children have a right to safety and the opportunity to become successful adults, and if we can help children navigate these most difficult of situations, we can hopefully guarantee them both. Volunteering with CASA Travis County, and working with these beautiful children and their families, was incredibly rewarding. I am so grateful to now do this work full-time, and to be a part of such a supportive and passionate community of advocates.”

Learn more about serving in the role of a guardian ad litem with CASA on our website, or at one of our upcoming Volunteer Info Sessions.

*The CASA Volunteer Oath: I do solemnly pledge that I will faithfully execute the duties of a Court Appointed Special Advocate as appointed by the District Court of Travis County. I promise to preserve the confidentiality of any and all information I receive. And I pledge that my paramount concern will always be to protect and promote the best interest of each child I represent.

**The most cited case regarding best interest is the Texas Supreme Court's 1976 decision Holley v. Adams.  The Court wrote that certain factors to consider in ascertaining the best interest of a child include the following:

  1. the desires of the child
  2. the emotional and physical needs of the child now and in the future
  3. the emotional and physical danger to the child now and in the future
  4. the parenting abilities of the individuals seeking custody
  5. the programs available to assist those individuals to promote the best interest of the child
  6. the plans for the child by these individuals or by the agency seeking custody
  7. the stability of the home or proposed placement
  8. the acts or omissions of the parent which may indicate that the existing parent-child relationship is not a proper one
  9. any excuse for the acts or omissions of the parent