A judge's view: Guardians play key role for childrenChildren are affected on a regular basis by the court system. Whether in family, child-protection or delinquency court, children appear before judges and deserve to have a voice in the courtroom.
By: Heather Sweetland, Duluth News Tribune
Children are affected on a regular basis by the court system. Whether in family, child-protection or delinquency court, children appear before judges and deserve to have a voice in the courtroom.
Guardians are appointed to represent the “best interests of the children,” but who are guardians? What training do they have to do their job?
The Guardian ad Litem Program was developed by the Minnesota Judicial System to train and supervise guardians appointed by judges across the state. Background checks, initial training and continuing education all are part of the process for people who apply to be guardians for children in court.
Good guardians for children work hard to ensure the best interests of children are addressed by judges. “Best interests” is defined by Minnesota statutes and includes 13 factors. From what each parent wants to the permanence of a proposed home to a determination of whether parents have chemical or alcohol addiction problems to a consideration of whether domestic abuse has occurred between the parents, all 13 factors must be considered by the guardian.
Guardians consider what a child wants, but it is only one factor to be acknowledged. Any parent of a teenager can agree adolescents always seem to think they know what they want, but it isn’t always in their best interests. A 15-year-old may not want to live with a parent who sets rules and enforces them. Guardians will tell a judge what the 15-year-old is saying but has the ability to recommend something else.
Sometimes guardians deal with incredibly tragic cases. I was assigned one child-
protection case that involved four children by four different fathers. The mother died during the pendency of the case. The oldest child turned 18 and had a child of her own. The father of the next oldest child had always been actively involved in his son’s life and had custody. The father of the 3-year-old girl had custody of her. Even though he lived out of state, he traveled to Minnesota on a regular basis so the child’s half-siblings could have contact with her. The remaining child was going through an adoption process. Despite all the ups and downs, the guardian did a wonderful job, having contact with the children, the parents, the foster parents, the professionals involved with the children and the schools. She faithfully filed reports updating the court on the status of each of the children.
It was and is very difficult work.
Another guardian worked with a young boy who was charged in juvenile court with criminal sexual conduct. After a lengthy treatment program, the young man returned to his mother’s home. The guardian traveled to the treatment program or was actively involved in phone conferences during the entire time the teenager was in treatment. The guardian also had contact with the mother, the child’s therapist and the social worker to make sure a good recommendation was made to the court regarding placement.
Being a guardian for children involved in the court system is not for the faint of heart. Every judge who works in family, child-protection or delinquency court knows how difficult the work can be and appreciates the work of guardians.
Heather Sweetland is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.