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Guardian ad litem training: past, present and future

On January 28, 2011, I will be moderating and speaking at the South Carolina Bar’s annual guardian ad litem training.  This will be the third consecutive year I’ve done this (the second year for the state bar) and I will be organizing and moderating the training for the South Carolina Bar for 2012–tentatively set for January 27, 2012.

The January 28, 2011 presentation (CLE, short for Continuing Legal Education) complies with the requirement under S.C. Code § 63-3-820 that attorney and lay guardians “annually complete a minimum of six hours of family law continuing legal education credit in the areas of custody and visitation.”  We have a great list of speakers and topics.

Past

I took over organizing the CLE for State Bar’s guardian ad litem training because I was dissatisfied with the way the training had been done in the past. French New Wave film critic and director Jean-Luc Godard said, “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.”  It’s a sane philosophy towards many things in life.  Rather than complain about the guardian training the State Bar was doing, I volunteered to organize it myself.  I wouldn’t claim that the new CLEs are better than past ones, but they do uphold my belief that the primary purpose of this annual training is to train guardians and therefore the topics should not merely be devoted to custody and visitation but should be devoted to custody and visitation issues that would be helpful to guardians.

For last year’s CLE, I wanted to devote the whole CLE to disparate views of what guardians should be doing.  At that point, the private guardian ad litem code had been in effect for seven years but there was little guidance from the appellate courts on how to apply the statute.  The viewpoints presented were lively and often contradictory.  This didn’t bother me as there are numerous “correct” ways to be a guardian but guardians who begin without any theory of what they are hoping to accomplish cannot be purposeful in their own work.  The feedback from that CLE was equally lively: some folks loved how it got them thinking about what they should be doing as guardians (or expecting guardians to do when they were the attorney); others found the CLE boring because the topics were all the same.

Present

This year’s CLE promises to be much more varied.  Rather than have a number of speakers present different views of the same topic, speakers will be presenting on a range of topics of interest to guardians.

Three of the speakers come from the judiciary.  Supreme Court Justice Kaye G. Hearn will be speaking on “Appellate Responsibilities of a Guardian ad Litem.”  Justice Hearn has spoken before at CLEs I organized and she is always a thoughtful, engaging presenter.  She will be covering a topic of great use to guardians and one I have never seen covered.  Family Court Judge Dorothy M. Jones will provide insight into the best guardian practices she has encountered in her years on the bench.  Former Family Court Judge F.P. Segars-Andrews will provide the benefit of her being both a family court judge and a family court custody lawyer when she shared her views from both sides of the bench.

Two of the speakers were recruited because they run excellent family law blogs.  V.B. “Tripp” Atkins III, whose does the Upstate Family Law Blog, is speaking on information gathering.  J. Benjamin Stevens, who does the South Carolina Family Law Blog, will be speaking on “Being a Proactive Guardian ad Litem.”  Two of the speakers were recruited because they either work or worked for child protection agencies.  Cherie T. Barton, who previously worked as York County counsel for DSS, will speak on “Private Cases That Have DSS Involvement.”  M. Christine “Tena” Hardee of the Children’s Law Center will speak on “The Guardian’s Initial Intake.”

Two of the speakers were recruited based my regard for Jean-Luc Godard’s view of criticism.   They are family law attorneys I deeply respect who were critical of past CLEs I presented.  Such criticism doesn’t bother me–feedback is a spur to improvement–but it does suggest they could do better.  They have graciously agreed to provide us their expertise.  Thomas F. McDow will speak on “Theory Versus Reality in Custody and Visitation.”  In what may be one of his last acts before possibly being elected to the family court bench–he is one of three candidates up for the vacant 9th Circuit seat–Ben Mack will present on ethical issues related to guardian work.

The two remaining speakers were chosen because they have presented at previous CLEs I organized and received some of the best evaluations I have ever seen.  J. Todd Manley, one of the most sought after family court mediators in the Charleston area, will present on “What the Mediator Wants From the Guardian.”  As more custody cases resolve in mediation, a guardian’s role in mediation will become increasingly important.  Finally, at last year’s GAL training the Honorable Barry W. Knobel suggested I ask M.J. Goodwin to speak.  That presentation was her first at any CLE.  Why no one had previous asked her to speak is a mystery as she was an exceptional presenter: funny, knowledgeable and opinionated.  Even the folks who found the CLE boring loved M.J.  This year she will present on writing reports.

I believe this year’s CLE meets my goal of presenting information that would be useful to guardians.  Further it’s a CLE I would want to attend even if I wasn’t moderating it.  Anyone interested in guardian ad litem work and attorneys who do custody work are encouraged to attend.

Future

There’s a theory that I am a frustrated law professor trapped in the career of a family law attorney.  The truth is that I enjoy training attorneys more than I think I would enjoy training law students.   Attorneys bring more practical knowledge and expertise to the learning experience than do law students, so the topics one can cover are more esoteric.  Thus, I love organizing and moderated these CLEs.  I will be organizing and moderating the State Bar’s 2012 guardian ad litem training.  Rev. Dr. George Joseph Gatgounis, Esquire, has already agreed to present on the problems of using social norms to determine custody.  Anyone else interested in presenting at the South Carolina Bar’s 2012 guardian ad litem training is encouraged to contact me.

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