Evaluation of the Guardian Ad Litem System in Nebraska

By: Erik S. Pitchal, Madelyn D. Freundlich, and Corene Kendrick. Published by: National Association of Counsel for Children. Published in December 2009.

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Highlights include:

  • “When asked about the permanency outcomes for the children they represent, the GALs identified a number of factors as prolonging children’s stays in foster care: judges’ reluctance to return children home without there being an absolute assurance that there are no risks; failure of county attorneys to file petitions to terminate parental rights; failure to follow the requirements of the Adoption and Safe Families Act regarding filing petitions to terminate parental rights; the costs associated with GALs’ filing petitions to terminate parental rights; parents’ decisions to take termination of parental rights actions to trial; and too few judges.” (p. ix)
  • “Thus, the system as it is currently structured perpetuates a particularly cruel fraud on all citizens of Nebraska: it makes it look like there is a voice for Nebraska’s children in the court process, but in fact, that voice is mute” (p. vi).
  • “In interviews, GALs said that they let the court know what the child wants and why they disagree with the child’s position and what they think the child’s best interest is. Several judges, however, said that GALs often do not alert the court to the client’s wishes because they have not met with the client. Other stakeholders made the same observation. The majority of GALs indicated that they had never sought separate counsel when the child’s position and what they thought was in the child’s best interest differed. This sentiment seems ironic in view of the earlier reported finding that over 40 percent of the GALs said they would not want to receive more training on their roles and responsibilities as GALs” (p. xi).
  • Recommendations:
  • “Short Term Reforms 1. Because attorneys for children should have clearly defined case responsibilities, Nebraska should clearly enumerate the powers and duties of the GAL in 3(a) cases through statute or mandatory, enforceable practice standards promulgated by the Supreme Court.
  • 2. Training for GALs in Nebraska must be significantly increased and enhanced, and there must be organized opportunities for GALs to network with and learn from each other.
  • 3. The relationship between the GAL and the child must be changed to become client‐focused, not adult‐focused.
  • 4. Nebraska should establish mandatory caseload standards for GALs in 3(a) cases.
  • 5. All GALs should be reimbursed on an hourly basis. All counties that still use the law firm/flat‐fee contract system should phase this system out, given the evidence that attorneys working on an hourly basis have more reasonable caseloads and adequate compensation.
  • 6. Youth should participate in 3(a) proceedings in court.
  • 7. Nebraska should establish a centralized system for oversight of GAL services. Responsibility for administering and funding the system of legal services to children in 3(a) cases should be shifted to an independent state entity, whether within the state Administrative Office of the Courts or the executive branch.
  • 8. Nebraska should adopt, by statute, a client‐directed model of representation. Building on Recommendation 3 above, the child’s attorney should follow the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct just like all attorneys.
  • 9. Nebraska should renovate court facilities to make them adequate for the needs of children and youth.” (p. xii).

Categories: Children, Courts, Family, Family, Legal Aid Practitioners, Researchers and Academics, State-Specific

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