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Order of the Court: Guardian ad Litems & Psychological Evaluations

The law in Pennsylvania requires that the court consider what is in the “best interest” of the child. It does NOT state or insinuate that you have to prove that a parent is unfit. This is an important distinction, and well worth thinking long and hard about. The judge in your case may order that an unbiased third party speak on behalf of your child, such as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). The judge may also believe that a deeper understanding of your child’s mental health is required before a decision can be made, such that could be best provided through a psychological evaluation.  Both instances can take time to complete, will likely cost you through the nose, and could essentially go in any direction.

I can’t imagine an instance where a child’s emotional stability could be more at risk than if they are living with a non-biological parent in the first place. By the very nature of their circumstances, something has gone terribly wrong with the primary parents. It could be a death in the family, a death of a biological parent, serious financial issues, ill-equipped parents, and the list goes on. There are some instances where a parent needs to get their footing and may require a little time to get into a safe or stable situation. I’m not referring to those instances. I’m referring to a long-term placement of a child with a relative or non-biological parent. Children are both more fragile and more resilient than we give them credit for. Even still, the effects of feeling abandoned, neglected, abused, or ill-cared for are unique for each child, and the longer they are left to linger, the more intense the effects will be felt by and for the child. If your child has any emotional or behavioral issues that interfere with daily life situations, there’s a problem that needs to be examined, and it’s likely that the court is going to want to examine it for themselves. It’s not unfathomable or unrealistic to expect this. In fact, plan on the court wanting to probe into your child’s psyche. And plan on them assigning the job to someone else.

Some judges may require either a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) (generally a lawyer or child advocate), or a psychological evaluation or both. Once the judge rules one way or another, you’ll need to be prepared to do two things that require a pen: write a big hefty check and start writing a history statement.

You’re on your own with the big hefty check. I can give you some pointers on the history statement.

Hopefully you’ve been documenting or have a great memory. The documentation will be easier to work with, but a good memory should never be discounted. Usually you can document things after the fact, it just takes longer to pull together. I started with a great memory (I lucked out), but I also used my own notes, school records, medical records, newspaper articles that pertained to the case, obituary notices, emails, and anything else that had a date on it. Don’t be shy when it comes to documentation.

A history statement can be used for the GAL. It will give them some insight into what’s been going on with the child and how different factors (including actions by the opposing parties) have affected the child.

When I wrote my history statement, I used several writing styles that brought the piece together as a unified whole. I started by writing a narrative that gave an overview of the events that led Matthew to come live with me. Next, I put together a chronology of events that occurred once Matthew moved in with me, organized by date. Then I added a few narrative sections that gave additional insight into my relationship with Matthew and other factors that seemed particularly pertinent. Each of these will be described below in greater detail.

First, I wrote a narrative (using a loose essay format) that gave an overview of the events that led Matthew to move in with me. I didn’t bother to explain how I came to know different bits of information, I simply stated the facts that I was aware of and, equally important, that seemed relevant regarding who did what and, when applicable, how Matthew responded. I didn’t use any flowery or subjective language. I kept the facts straight and the sentences relatively simple.

I organized the second part of the history statement according to important dates, and put them in chronological order. Again, I stayed on target with the facts and avoided getting personal with the information. If the father did something that really hurt Matthew, I stated what he did as a police officer might write a report, used quotes when possible, and relayed Matthew’s reaction in clinical terms. If a teacher or counselor was involved, I cited references, but I did not get personal with the facts. It’s important to show that you can be objective about what’s going on for several reasons. First, your child needs you to be objective, and the GAL will be looking for patterns in the actual history. You can summarize your history statement and include patterns in that, but the facts as they are should be straightforward and easy to follow. The GAL will also notice if you can be objective. A history statement is not a novel or a literal biography. It shouldn’t contain long narratives about your opinion on different issues. The primary purpose of the history statement is to give the GAL a lay of the land. Most GALs will interview you regardless of whether or not you write the history statement; they won’t require you to do write a history statement. So when you do, and you do it right, they’ll appreciate your initiative and effort, and they’ll require less time to interview you. In turn, you should appreciate the fact that they will take the statement into consideration because, technically, they are not required by law to do so. And unlike writing, where you can edit over and over, you generally can’t “undo” verbal (and potentially harmful) comments that you might make during the interview.

But, for those of you who are itching to put your opinions in thee somewhere, not to worry. I felt the same way. I appended additional sections to my history statement that I believed would give the GAL a greater sense of me and my involvement with Matthew, and you can do the same thing in your statement.  I thought they lent to the overall statement and gave them a better sense of how I came to be in the picture in the first place, a sense of my relationship with Matthew, and how I’ve arrived at deciding to fight for custody.  These sections are titled as follows:

  • My Thoughts About Matthew’s Parents
    Be honest about their contributions without bashing them. 
  • About Me and My Relationship with Matthew
    In this section, I detailed how I came to know Matthew, described our bond, and discussed my advocacy efforts on his behalf. I also made a promise to Matthew and the GAL about what I would do (and continue doing) for Matthew’s sake, which included helping him maintain a safe and nurturing relationship with his parents and their respective families.
  • My Original Expectations and How I’ve Come to Understand Why it is Not in Matthew’s Best Interest to Live with Either Parent
    I think this one is self-explanatory. Your situation may be different, but my original expectations were that Matthew would be with me temporarily, with the assumption that I would (and tried to) help bridge the biological parent’s relationship with Matthew. I explained that I did not know all of the history with Matthew, could not have foreseen the parents’ future or the events that unfolded.

I wrote the last sections in a more personal style. I thought it was the perfect way to introduce myself, to let them know that I really love Matthew and care about his future. These sections were designed to provide the GAL with my insights into a variety of issues without cluttering the actual history section.
I also made a very convenient list of contacts for the GAL, which I put into a separate document. I didn’t discriminate; I included family contacts on all sides. I also included all other relevant contacts (and potential witnesses) such as teachers, doctors, counselors, etc. along with their phone numbers (and extensions when applicable), cell phone numbers, email addresses and physical addresses. Before I met the GAL, I had already taken the initiative to sign waivers with everyone I thought they might contact. Oh yeah, be sure to include your child’s social security number. They’ll need it!

I was completely ready when the GAL contacted me to schedule the appointment. During that same call, I said, “Oh and by the way, I put together a history statement and list of contacts. Would it be ok if I emailed this to you?” Uh, yeah. The GAL was thrilled to have all of this just handed to her! Great first impression with the court-appointed GAL = Priceless. And to prove just how priceless it really was, the GAL recommended that Matthew continue living with me, while both biological parents looked on, probably slightly shocked that their DNA (the foundation of their respective cases) did not win them the GALs important recommendation. Even the judge admitted that the case was unusual given that my blood type doesn’t match Matthew’s. Imagine that. But in spite of her comments about the unusualness of the case, the judge didn’t change the custody order, and I still have full legal and full physical custody. I can hardly emphasize this enough: it pays in dividends to be prepared with a well-organized, well-written history statement.

Psychological evaluations are slightly different. Usually the psychologist wants to meet with you, the child and the opposing party in a variety of combinations. There will be several meetings. A history statement could be very useful here as well, though their style is slightly different from the GAL. The psychologist will likely incorporate some type of evaluation assessment instrument (a “multiple choice” assessment), and then provide the results to you in terms of how it relates to you in the role of a parent. This can give you the opportunity to discuss issues that the child is dealing with, ways that you are helping the child to deal with those issues, and the strengths and weaknesses that you bring to the table. In many cases, the psychologist will be looking to you to make sense of the results, to explain your position in certain areas, to indicate that you understand (and are working on) your weaknesses, and how you relate to the opposing party, which the court will inevitably require you to do no matter who gets custody.

One Response to “Order of the Court: Guardian ad Litems & Psychological Evaluations”

  1. Court Ordered Mediation and Conciliation | ActingParent.com Says:

    [...] contacts that she might need (who might also qualify as witnesses) and a history statement (see Order of the Court: Guardian ad Litems & Psychological Evalutions). Because I was following the case online through the court’s website, I also signed and [...]

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Standing in place of the parent, or acting parent, or "in loco parentis" is a big job that comes with a unique set challenges. I created this blog to share my story and my experiences with those who find themselves in a similiar situation. I look forward to hearing your comments!

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