"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States



Sunday, August 24, 2008

Deciding who to hate the most

Something that happens regularly in GAL work is that you get involved with a nasty custody case that is enough to make you suicidal (or homicidal). In fact, on a regular basis when I check in with child therapists, I ask them, "Do you have any recommendations I can pass on to the judge?," a fairly common reply is to "kill the parents." Of course, they are usually just venting.

It is pretty common in really bad custody/visitation cases for the more difficult parent, who has been representing him/herself, to decide the GAL is "just against him[her]." As a guardian ad litem, it is not my job to remain neutral. The fact is, in some cases, one parent (and more rarely, both) is simply so wrapped up in their own problems that there is little left to parent their child or work with the other parent to make sure the job is done.

What I have noticed over the years is that when the parent realizes he/she is in trouble, many will go out and hire the first lawyer they can find who will take them without much of a down payment and on short notice. It makes perfect sense to get legal assistance but you get what you pay for. The way it frequently goes is that the Johnnie-Come-Lately lawyer puts on a strutting show in front of the client but never really does much to help them. Frankly, there frequently isn't much they can do. It is not like they can perform a personalityoptomy on the parent. Invariably, time passes, they don't get paid and they drop out a couple of weeks before the trial. The parent then wants a continuance. We have 4 - 5 lawyers in our jurisdiction who specialize in this. I know them, they are all nice people, but ... well, what can you say? If they are still in the case on the morning of trial and can't get a continuance, they tend to beg, beg, BEG for a settlement offer.

Alternatively, some of the not-so-nice attorneys who aren't getting paid simply won't return calls or pick up the phone if I call. Chances are, they are feuding with their client who has switched their hatred for the GAL to hatred towards their attorney (some have enough hate for all of us). When there is trouble in that relationship, it has negative repercussions for the rest of us. If settlement discussions commence, we NEED the attorney. I can't advise a represented parent about an agreement and he/she needs the attorney's signature before I am going to sign. I really can't even negotiate under those circumstances. Moreover, if the parent is acting out in a manner that is harmful to the child but the attorney won't answer the phone, I can't even try to informally put on the brakes - I have to file something and wait weeks before we can get before the court. Okay, I'll just say it. These types of attorneys are worse than useless.

It is not uncommon for a difficult parent who is represented by counsel but who thinks he/she isn't being treated fairly by the GAL (it becomes personal for many) to fire the "worthless" lawyer they have and go get one that they think will bring the GAL to heel. It is interesting how many bring in a pitbull from another jurisdiction. It is ALWAYS another jurisdiction. They pick someone who doesn't know me; doesn't know the judges at our court and how they tend to rule; isn't familiar with the procedure at our court; and doesn't know the lay of the land where we practice.

Male or female lawyer, it doesn't matter. They first launch into playing head games, attempting to intimidate me. Steely glares; snide insinuations that I am unfairly biased against their client; leaving me on hold when I return a call; accusations based upon fantasy they have been told by their client (which is invariably easy to disprove); insinuations that I am somehow in the other parent's pocket and claims that I am acting as the other parent's attorney simply because I think the other parent is the better custodian.

I used to be really taken aback when one of these ringers would get brought in. It was insulting, infuriating and disheartening. I'd try to explain my position. I'd argue that they don't know what is going on in the case and try to explain the "real" facts. I'd try to explain all the reasons that proved I was NOT representing the other parent. Anyway you look at it, I would walk away from any interactions feeling bad and accomplishing nothing.

Time and experience has tempered my reactions to an "alien" attorney. Now, I greet them cordially (no matter how cold they are acting) and then just listen quietly as they tell me how the cow ate cabbage. Experience has taught me that I don't need to explain to them that their client is flawed and tie it all up with a little bow. They won't believe me, anyway. A leopard doesn't change its spots and if I am calling it right, the attorney will find out soon enough what he/she is dealing with. As the case progresses, I routinely pass on nonconfidential, relevant information about their client, without comment, to their counsel. For example, their client may be sending "private" e-mails to the other parent that are likely to sink their case (you'd be amazed at how many parents ask to meet the other parent and specifically spell out that they don't want any of the lawyers, including their OWN lawyer or the GAL, to know about it). I pass these on to their counsel with just a simple title "FYI."

Oh, I could hold it back and ambush them at court, but my role is to look out for the child's best interests. Who knows, maybe if the lawyer is aware of problems, they will have some inside track to make the client see reason. I don't believe in playing "gotcha" in court, and I don't see the value of ambushing a parent with problems that can be resolved outside of court. Sadly, chances are, parents who would be so imprudent as to behave the way I am describing are NOT likely to change, no matter what I say or what their lawyer tells them. But sometimes it happens.

I tell the alien lawyer which clerks to call to get to the judge and give them the super secret numbers to push to bypass the court answering system to get to a real person. I explain our unique court procedure and who hears what motion on what day. I tell them a little something about the substitute judges if we have one for an interim hearing (a substitute judge is not going to do much, anyway so I am not going to step on my ward's toes). I do my best to remain civil and professional. We are officers of the Court and have a responsibility to our client, the court and the legal profession. Without civility, the whole system would grind to a halt.

Some of the best relationships I have developed with other attorneys begin in the trenches of an awful custody/visitation suit. By the end of the case, they sometimes hate their client so much that they can't wait to get out of my jurisdiction. "I hope we can work on another case again, sometime!" I tell them. ("When hell freezes over," I suspect they're thinking as they speed back to their regular courthouse).

Husband is still out of town and the girls and I are hanging out doing a little of this and that. Evelyn was missing him so much earlier today that she started whimpering, then took to howling. Jezebel was laying on her back with her feet in the air and joined in - she looked a little silly to be howling on her back. He'll be home, soon.

Happy Sunday!

7 comments:

Stephanie D. said...

Awww is Evelyn a Daddy's girl?

I find your tales of GAL work fascinating, Penny. And it makes me grateful someone else is doing that job, because I couldn't remain emotionally neutral.

Kudos to you!

Penny said...

Well, the glory of being GAL is that you don't stay neutral - you get to look out for the child! Knowing what is best is the tricky part - and ducking the bad energy shot in your direction from enraged parents is tough, too.

Anonymous said...

I always read your Blog first - it is so interesting.

You have such a difficult job and do it with such wisdom and grace.

Keep up the excellent work.

Enjoy stories and photos of those wonderful dogs, too.

MAR

Anonymous said...

I always read your Blog first - it is so interesting.

You have such a difficult job and do it with such wisdom and grace.

Keep up the excellent work.

Enjoy stories and photos of those wonderful dogs, too.

MAR

Anonymous said...

I guess I liked my own post so much ~ had to post it twice, lol!

Sorry,
MAR

Anonymous said...

That's okay, MAR - I second what you said!

I'm glad you're good at it, Penny.

Janet

Anonymous said...

That's okay, MAR - I second what you said!

I'm glad you're good at it, Penny.

Janet