Ohio’s highest court has adopted new amendments for domestic relations and juvenile cases when guardians ad litem (“GALs”) are appointed for children. The changes, effective as of January 1, 2021, include an increase in training requirements, as well as guidance on addressing conflicts of interest between the GAL’s recommendation and the child’s wishes, and potential penalties for unauthorized disclosure of guardian ad litem reports.
Attorneys who serve as guardians ad litem should carefully review these important amendments.
What is a Guardian Ad Litem?
A guardian ad litem is a person appointed by the court to “assist a court in its determination of the best interest of a child.” Notably, the GAL does not represent either parent, or any other party other than that child. A GAL is usually an attorney, although the law for a guardian ad litem in Ohio does not require that they be an attorney.
The responsibilities of a guardian ad litem often include conducting an investigation on behalf of the child, by interviewing both parents, speaking with the child, reviewing school records, and then preparing a report recommending who should be awarded custody and why. The GAL must attend all hearings related to the child custody case and may be questioned on the stand regarding the investigation methods and recommendation.
The new amendments define the guardian ad litem duties as including, but not limited to:
- Becoming informed about the facts of the case and contacting all relevant persons
- Observing the child with each parent, foster parent, guardian , or physical custodian
- Interviewing the child, if age and developmentally appropriate, where no parent, foster parent, guardian, or physical custodian is present
- Visiting the child at the residence or proposed residence of the child
- Ascertaining the wishes and concerns of the child
- Interviewing the parents, foster parents, guardians, physical custodian, and other significant individuals who may have relevant knowledge regarding the issues of the case (and the GAL may require each individual to be interviewed without the others being present)
- Interviewing relevant school personnel, medical and mental health providers, child protective services workers, and court personnel and obtain copies of relevant records
- Reviewing pleadings and other relevant court documents in the case
- Obtaining and reviewing relevant criminal, civil, educational, mental health or substance abuse assessments, or other evaluations or tests of the parties as the GAL deems necessary or helpful to the court
- Reviewing any necessary information and interview other persons as necessary to make an informed recommendation regarding the best interest of the child
Ohio Increases Training Requirements
Under the new amendments GALSs are now required to earn twelve hours of pre-service education, six of which must be live (either in person or remotely), and the other six earned from online courses, teaching, writing, mentoring, or other activities approved by the appointing court. They will also be required to complete six hours a year of continuing education, three of which must be live and the other three earned from online courses, teaching, writing, mentoring, or other activities approved by the appointing court.
The Supreme Court of Ohio provides useful GAL education resources. Importantly, the Court issued an order on December 16, 2020 waiving the requirement that guardians ad litem attend mandatory education courses in person, accommodating remote learning in response to the global pandemic.
Additional Changes to Guardian Ad Litem in Ohio
The new amendments require the guardian ad litem report to be provided only to the court, unrepresented parties, and legal counsel, and that any other disclosure must be approved in advance by the court. Unauthorized disclosure of the report may be subject to court action, including “penalties for contempt, which include fines and/or incarceration.”
The new amendments also include guidance for when an attorney is appointed as both the child’s attorney and guardian ad litem in an abuse, neglect, dependency, unruly, or delinquency case, and a conflict arises because the child’s wishes differ from the GAL’s recommendations. New language in the amendments provides for separate appointments in this situation.
These changes include:
- The appointing court now has authority to limit the scope of the GAL’s appointment to a specific item or issue;
- A GAL appointment will be mandatory in abuse, neglect, dependency, unruly, and delinquency cases; and
- The court may consider reappointment of the same GAL for a specific child in a subsequent case.
How Our Attorneys Help: Guardian Ad Litem in Ohio
If you need assistance with a GAL or other family law matters, we welcome you to contact us. Based in Cincinnati, we serve clients throughout Ohio and are dedicated to helping you make well-informed decisions for your family’s future.