Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Ethics of My Cousin Vinny - Is this Guardian ad litem training?

What is involved in training the courts how are Guardians ad litem trained? Given the Guardians ad litem job, one might imagine a rigorous training program in which professionals designed the curriculum to match the job description, rules and.... the needs of the consumers. So much is on the line -  the recommendation of a Guardian ad litem  can and will have a major impact on the dynamics of any divorcing family.  It might be expected that the training they receive would be top notch. The courses they take should  have some bearing on the job Guardians ad litem are authorized to do.

IN the past several years the Judicial Branch, Maine Bar, MEGALI and Kids First Center, to name a few organizations, have offered training and continuing training (please note that what is offered is not continuing education) to the states Guardians ad litem. We would ask to what legally mandated, job related aim are courses such as:

The Ethics of My Cousin Vinny
Collection of GAL fees
Parental Alienation: What’s the GAL’s Role?
Youth Participation in Court Proceedings

None of these organizations have a specialty education background in curriculum development for job related training, such as one would get from an institution such as a college, or technical school or the very focused training used in large business enterprises. The courses listed come from the continuing training list that is available to Guardians ad litem. There is no description of what the courses entail and if they are relevant to the role of Guardian ad litem.

Then there is the question of if the person(s) giving the training is uniquely qualified to give training on the topic at hand?

Take for example the following:

Understanding, Assessing & Responding to Needs of the Triangulated Child - This interesting course might be just the thing for continuing education in social work, but Guardians ad litem are not social workers and by the rules published, they are not supposed to be doing social work.  Triangulation is a term that is used to explain family dynamics where one member of a family will not talk with another directly. Instead a third family member is used which creates a triangle of communication. It is a term used in psychology to help explain dysfunctional family dynamics. This is not a topic that is relevant to the role of Guardian ad litem. In addition, for a course such as this one would expect that it would be presented by someone who has a background in psychology. In this case it was presented by a lawyer.

The Social Cognitive Connection - This is another social worker course - good for social workers, but off topic for Guardians ad litem. What the term means is that people do not learn new behaviors only by trying them out. The survival of people is dependent on how people act in a socially acceptable way and that this behavior is rewarded. It is a term used in psychology to explain the way people learn, understand and react to the environment in which they live, work and play. This course was presented by a member of the board of directors of an organization that is heavily connected to the Judicial Branch. This organization is so connected to the Judicial Branch that it is promoted on the web site. There is no indication that the presenter has any background to present such a topic, or that she tailored her remarks to the specifics of the Guardians ad litem legally mandated job.

Parental Alienation - What’s the GAL’s Role? - This is another trendy topic for social workers but far removed from what the Guardians ad litem role is defined as. Parental Alienation is when a child expresses a strong dislike or even hatred towards one parent - usually the non-custodial parent. To explore this dynamic takes hours of time and as a result generates billable hours and social work improvisation. This course was presented by an organization that represents the best interest of the Guardian ad litem - not a psychologist or even a social worker. Maybe a more appropriate tile should have been "Parental Alienation - How a GAL can profit from it!"

While the above examples may be fun or interesting to attend, are they courses that will improve a Guardian ad litems mandated job performance? Probably not because as a Guardian ad litem the role requires the investigation of facts surrounding the divorcing family and the child(ren) involved. It does not require the use by the Guardian ad litem of psychology and sociology - that is what the professionals in those areas are there for. Those professionals have the education and training to interpret and understand a child, and have spent years studying the concepts needed to do so. A few hours training does not give a Guardian ad litem the needed tools to accomplish the task. Yet quite often they do. The need to tie training tightly to job function and only to job function seems to be lost on the family courts and Guardians ad litem themselves. The result are fun courses that lead to the use of junk science, psycho-eugenics and moral equivalency that infects the courts like a virus.


When Guardians ad litem, soak up "My Cousin Vinny", it is at the expense of learning the less "entertaining" rules for Guardians ad litem.  To us, it appears to be a significant defect in Guardian ad litem training.  It also makes the reports of off topic/off role improvisations and creativity in the Guardian ad litem's role more understandable.  "Social Work lite" takes some Guardians ad litem back to the understandable security of their parent profession but it corrupts Guardian ad litem functioning (and confuses the public) by neglecting the role and functioning of a Guardian ad litem - that of a court appointed investigator.

The reform of Guardian ad litem training has to be a vital aspect of Guardian ad litem and court reform.  Sorry Vinny, you're fired!

Feel free to comment on Guardian ad litem training here - or email us at or like us on Facebook.

Related posts:
Would you want a Guardian ad litem with this kind of training?


  1. Quite honestly, I do not see anything wrong with GALs being aware of parental alienation. Parental Alienation is a real issue that does in fact occur and it is abuse. Do you not know that Parental Alienation simply means that one parent is holding the child hostage for spite. If you are basing Parental Alienation on Gardeners theory, you need to look beyond that. In my opinion GALs should definitely have oversight and someone to answer to. Requirements to be a GAL in our states is 1. you have to be a lawyer, 2. you have to go to an 8 hour seminar. The GALs seem more concerned on what they think the judge is likely to do than they are in what the best interests of the child are. In our jurisdiction, the GAL has decided that the judge will not enforce visitation with a child over 12, and so she just does whatever the child wants whether it is in the best interest of the child or not is no matter. There is too much collusion between GALs and judges. The GAL should not be worried about what the judge might or might do. The lawyer should not be worried about what the judge might or might not do. No one looks out for the best interest of the child, they just want to do whatever is easiest for them and will cause the least amount of friction with the judge. You might as well just have the child fill out a questionnaire as to where they want to live and rubber stamp it. It would be way less expensive. A child does not know or understand what is in his or her best interest. They will go with the parent who feels "needs them more" every time. This puts the child in a situation where they are a caretaker to a parent who is mentally or emotionally unstable and uses the child as a means of support. This is not fair to the child, and to the "unchosen" parent. It makes a winner and a loser. Children need both parents. Also, judges would stand behind their rulings in the first place then there would be far less ongoing conflict. We have problems with Mothers withholding visitation based on non payment of child support. We have children withheld due to the ex finding a new partner. etc etc. Basically the only thing the judge does is 1. what the child thinks they want 2. decide who pays child support. The only thing that is truly enforceable in a Family Court is the child support order. Getting anything besides that enforced is a big joke.

    1. Thank you for the comment and I apologize for the delay in responding.

      1. The "best interest of the child" is not what you or your ex thinks is in your child(ren)s best interest - but what the state believes is in your child(ren)s best interest as it applies to the state. The guidelines for this standard are ambiguous at best and there is no testing to see if what is being "recommended" would actually benefit the child(ren).

      I would agree with you that GALs will recommend what they believe the Judge will go along with.

      2. There is no winners of losers as far as child custody is concerned. That idea is one that is perpetuated by the Divorce Industry. With that kind of thinking the divorcing family loses but it is the child(ren) who suffer the greatest loss.

      3. Guardians ad litem and the Divorce Industry being aware of Parental Alienation - there is nothing wrong with them knowing that it exists. The problem is that a Guardian ad litem is not a psychologist, social worker, lawyer (these may be the underlying profession) but they are investigators, reporters and nothing more than that. What happens when a GAL takes a course like the one described - the GAL now uses the theories introduced as part of their role and the ideas become tainted. It becomes junk science - which has no place in the courts - but - the courts just love.

      You correctly point out that GALs need oversight - which in theory they have - and that the judges are supposed to provide that oversight - which does not happen. GALs become mini judges and if you cross their path they will make your life hell.

      Again thank you.