Serving as the Court’s Eyes and Ears to Protect the Vulnerable: CVLS’ Guardian ad Litem Program

November 17, 2017

Ajay Sundar, an associate at Skadden Arps, wanted to put his legal skills to help others, and he volunteered to do just that through the CVLS Guardian ad Litem for Minors Program.

As Ajay recently recounted, CVLS quickly assigned him a pro bono case involving an eight-year-old named Ley’gacy, who was living with her grandmother. Her grandmother had guardianship because Ley’gacy’s mother was unable to care for her, but her mother who had a history of mental illness and instability–was now seeking to assert her parental rights. Then, one day, Ley’gacy disappeared from her grandmother’s home. She had been kidnapped by her mother.

Ajay searched for weeks, trying to figure out where Ley’gacy and her mother had gone, until one day the grandmother was contacted by the school district where Ley’gacy had been enrolled. They were living in California, outside of Los Angeles. The next thing Ajay knew, he was on a plane to San Bernardino County.

It can be exceedingly difficult to return a child from another state, or even enforce court orders out of state. Fortunately, Ajay was able to find a local public interest lawyer through Skadden’s network who helped guide him through the research he needed to prepare his case and successfully argue for Ley’gacy’s return to her grandmother in Chicago. While it took hundreds of hours of pro bono work and a lengthy hearing in court, the judge ultimately decided in his favor. After winning the case, Ajay accompanied Ley’gacy €“ who he has described as the best behaved eight-year-old on the planet €“ back home to Chicago.

Ley’gacy is just one of the countless children helped by CVLS’ Guardian ad Litem for Minors Program.  This is one of the many great programs you are helping to make possible through your generous support of the Investing in Justice Campaign. This program helps about 200 children each year, and its sister program–which handles guardian ad Litem for alleged disabled adults–helps a similar number of people in a typical year. Both programs receive direct appointments from probate judges in the Circuit Court of Cook County, who appoint CVLS whenever there is a contested guardianship that requires more extensive investigation than the court can provide. CVLS then recruits and trains pro bono attorneys to serve as Guardian ad Litem, or GAL, in these cases.  Because they are popular volunteer opportunities, the program is able to accept every case referred to CVLS by the court, with the exception of cases involving a conflict of interest for CVLS.

In both minor and disabled adult cases, the GAL conducts an extensive investigation before compiling a report to the court about what would be in their client’s best interest. Minor guardianship cases tend to be the most popular with CVLS’ volunteer attorneys, but they also are far more contentious. A GAL is usually called for in child guardianship cases when multiple parties are contesting who the child will live with €“ which often involves extensive familial drama. An attorney who wants to be a GAL for a child should be prepared to potentially defuse some heated situations, says Rebekah Rashidfarokhi, the director of the Minor GAL Program at CVLS. People are understandably very emotional about children in their families, and have strong opinions on who should be raising them.

In contrast, adult guardianship cases are usually less dramatic, with families typically agreeing in advance who can best provide for the adult and the GAL double-checking that decision by meeting with the alleged disabled person, reviewing medical reports and interviewing health care personnel. Adult guardianship cases can be emotionally trying, however. We have a duty as a GAL to read the alleged disabled person a notice of rights, and sometimes you’re reading a notice of rights to someone who is unresponsive, or someone who strongly objects to the proposed guardianship. Many, if not most, of the respondents don’t understand what is happening and may be upset or confused. These can be unique and challenging experiences for attorneys unaccustomed to this work, says Rashidfarokhi.

Despite the struggles involved, GAL work draws large numbers of interested attorneys from both large and small firms. The role of a Guardian ad Litem is very unique in that we’re representing the best interests of a child or an alleged disabled person. It’s a neutral, fact-finding role that attorneys don’t often experience, says Rashidfarokhi. When you’re representing the best interests of someone in our community, you’re always on the right team.

Additionally, the nature of the work creates a unique dynamic that is different from what lawyers experience in their typical paying cases. They are almost always the only attorney involved in the cases they handle, and function essentially as the eyes and ears of the court. Because of that, the Probate Division Judges often express gratitude for their help, and take the GAL’s report very seriously. In the vast majority of these cases the judge ends up following our recommendation, says Rashidfarokhi.

Interested in volunteering as GAL for a minor or alleged disabled adult? CVLS provides specialized training and support for pro bono attorneys who want to serve as GAL for a child or alleged disabled adult. For more information contact:

GAL for Minors: Rebekah Rashidfarokhi at arr@cvls.org or 312.332.7399

GAL for Disabled Adults: Susan DeConstanza at sdecostanza@cvls.org or 312.332.7546