The family court’s failure to protect guardians ad litem does not appear to be improving

Posted Tuesday, January 31st, 2023 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Child Custody, Family Court Procedure, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Specific

Over a decade ago I stopped doing guardian ad Litem work and blogged about why.  I was tired of ad hominem attacks from unhappy litigants—and there are always unhappy litigants in contested custody cases.

Moreover the work often felt dangerous.  As a guardian I occasionally went into homes of mentally unstable gun enthusiasts and once searched the bedroom and master bathroom of substance-abusing women (who had a Hitachi magic wand lying on her bed).  The fear of getting shot or accused of sexual misconduct did not increase my enthusiasm for guardian work.  Further, I get paid half my hourly rate for this work and am often having to beg for payment.

But my biggest concern was that the family court did not protect me from scurrilous allegations.  I once had a 78 year-old litigant claim under oath that I wasn’t advocating her desired outcome on custody because I wanted to have sex with her.  Rather than shut this defamatory perjury down, the family court judge who heard this testimony proceeded to tease me the next few years about my taste in women.

Meanwhile my wife, who for about 15 years made her livelihood as a guardian, was subject to allegations that she engaging in an adulterous relationship with a fellow attorney. She had her personal medical history revealed in open court by a close friend who (disappointingly) revealed this information in a misguided attempt to reduce my wife’s credibility.  Quite recently I lectured about the importance of maintaining one’s credibility with the family court.  Given the slander and personal attacks that the court fails to protect guardians from, why risk this precious asset doing guardiaP work?

Guardian work can be satisfying—especially for attorneys who went into family law out of a desire to protect and serve the best interests of children.  I have tremendous admiration for attorneys who do it well. Thus my feelings of distraught from last Friday’s presentation at the South Carolina Bar’s annual Guardian ad Litem training[i] by Megan Dell and Almand Barron on “The GAL Protects the Kids, But Who Protects the GAL?”  From their PowerPoint presentation it appears the family court is doing an even worse job protecting guardians than when I stopped doing it over a decade ago.

Ms. Dell presented information that a dear friend of hers (and a fellow colleague of ours) was unwilling to get mental health treatment because fellow members of the bar had used her mental health history in the past to undermine her credibility.  Such attempted use of an attorney-guardian’s mental health treatment to intimidate the guardian in the guise of impeaching the guardian appears to be a recurring concern.  I am certain that if I brought up an opposing counsel’s mental health history to undermine his or her credibility, a family court judge would report me to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for violating the civility oath.

Ms. Dell and Ms. Barron also presented examples of a guardian’s family being investigated by litigants and attorneys attempting to obtain discovery about a guardian’s family. I know the family court would sanction any attorney who attempted to investigate or use discovery to seek personal information about an opposing counsel or his or her family.  It is disheartening that the family court is not sanctioning attorneys or litigants for such actions against guardians.

Guardian work is relatively low paying (compared to attorney) work and can be dangerous.  Most of my colleagues who focus on doing it do so from a desire to protect those who uniformly need protection.  If the family court doesn’t stop attorneys and litigants from invading a guardian’s expectation of personal, familial, and medical privacy, and won’t sanction litigants and attorneys for such invasions of privacy (or outright defamation), good guardians will simply quit and we will be left with incompetent or corrupt guardians to represent the best interests of children.

The culture of guardian work in South Carolina needs to change.

[i] Here’s where I give a shout-out to Jenny Stevens, who organized and moderated such an exceptional CLE that I have already blogged about two of the presentations.

6 thoughts on The family court’s failure to protect guardians ad litem does not appear to be improving

  1. RobinBeadle says:

    From my experience with the guardian ad litem for 2021 was horrible I thought they would do more and my grandchildren and for their best interest instead they proceeded to sign with DSS of horry county needless to say my grandchildren went back to Mom and Dad a mother refused to follow the safety plan and children went back to the mother’s pic by the way aunt my mouth how I don’t see him or hear from him

  2. RobinBeadle says:

    For my aunt by marriage now I don’t hear from my grandchild

  3. Maria says:

    I’m devoting an entire class period to this in the course I’m teaching at the law school. I know about this all too well.

  4. Michele Sturkie says:

    Amen Greg…after 20 years of GAL work, I stopped taking appointments last August (although pending cases continue). Everything you said is spot on.

  5. Ashby Jones says:

    Spot on and thank you for saying so.

  6. IrishGirl says:

    There is no oversight for Private Guardian ad Litems. This is a big problem in SC. It’s up to the families involved to do their due diligence and actually get background checks on those “appointed” to be GALs. When you have a GAL who has a conviction of assault from another state, which by the way is a disqualifying factor per SC 63-3-820(B) , but she’s permitted to be a GAL and YOU have to find case law or precedence that a GAL has been removed for having a conviction because the verbiage from one state does not match exactly to SC Statute. It’s not just about the courts protecting the GALs, it’s about the legislature changing the law to require oversight, accountability, and background checks on BOTH Private and Volunteer GALs. Better yet, just get rid of Private GALs – why do we actually need two types? Can’t find many other states that have two separate types of GALs that go through different qualification standards. Then hold the Courts accountable for how those GALs are performing. Without accountability, you have anarchy and that’s where we are today.

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