The Public Defender’s Office employs one attorney who serves as a guardian ad litem (a lawyer appointed to advocate for the best interests of a child) in custody, parentage, educational neglect, and neglect/dependency cases. The Metro Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program began in 1998 in order to ensure that a legally trained advocate would stand up for children’s best interest in pivotal court proceedings. The Program handles 40 to 60 cases at any given time and typically deals with more than 150 cases each year.
The Court may appoint a guardian ad litem either on its own motion or at the request of any party when the Court deems such an appointment to be appropriate. The child is the client of the guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to represent the child by advocating for the child’s best interest and ensuring that the child’s concerns and preferences are expressed to the Court. The child, not the court or the parents, is the client of the guardian ad litem.
Additionally, the GAL program seeks to ensure that the individual child’s needs receive due consideration in court and that any services needed by the child are provided in an appropriate manner. Receiving appointments through the Juvenile Court, an attorney appointed as GAL for the child may actively pursue such issues as individual and/or family counseling, or address medical or educational needs. If needed, the GAL program (or another entity ordered by the Court) might conduct a home study of a parent or prospective custodian’s residence in order to make a custody recommendation or to determine whether the household requires home-based services.
Quite often these cases are truly social problems masquerading as legal ones. Therefore, a social worker is instrumental in determining the needs of a family. Currently, the program is staffed by Carrie Mason, an Assistant Public Defender, and Jill Overton, a full-time social worker. The unit operates as a team. Mrs. Overton investigates and identifies the needs of the child. She will then attempt to meet those needs outside the court system by, for example, assisting the parties with arranging counseling or contacting the school if there are educational concerns. Ms. Mason represents the child in any court activity that is necessary to assure that the child is receiving the required services. To prepare a recommendation, the GAL program may speak with the child, parents, family members, social workers, school officials, health providers and others who are knowledgeable about the child’s history. We will also review necessary records pertaining to the child (i.e. school, medical, and case worker reports, and other documents). However, the judicial official will make the final decision regarding the child’s best interest.