Western Oklahoma family lawyer Donelle Ratheal has served as a guardian ad litem in divorce and paternity cases for approximately ten years. She has considerable experience in working with mental-health professionals, teachers, and religious leaders in her role as a child’s advocate. In 2006, Donelle received the “Outstanding Guardian ad Litem” award from Family Law Section of the Oklahoma Bar Association for her efforts on children’s behalf in court cases.
A guardian ad litem (sometimes referred to as a “GAL”) is an attorney appointed by the trial judge to represent the child when parents disagree about custody or access. Many cases involving a GAL are high-conflict cases. A parent can request a GAL for the child; the trial judge can also make the appointment without a parent’s request.
The GAL is required to recommend to the judge what is best for the child. The GAL investigates the matter by interviewing the parents, children, and other individuals. The GAL reviews information relating to the case and can seek advice from a medical provider or mental health professional. The interview process is confidential until the GAL prepares a final report.
Depending on the age of the child, the GAL may discuss the child’s wishes regarding custody and access with each parent. If the child’s preferences are required to be considered (the law has minimum age requirements), the GAL must disclose the child’s wishes in the report. However, the GAL has the obligation to advise the judge whether the child’s wishes are in his/her best interests. With the exception of this one disclosure, all communications between the child and the GAL are confidential.
The GAL is required to present a written report to the judge and the parents, which is presented at trial. The report sets out the details of the investigation and makes recommendations. The GAL is treated as an expert at trial; the GAL can be examined by either parent’s attorney regarding the investigation and recommendations.
To make children feel more comfortable during the interview, Donelle has created a space designed just for them. She also developed a program for children in custody disputes, to help them to talk about their perspectives.