HD36 - Evaluation of the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) Pilot Project

  • Published: 1996
  • Author: Department of Criminal Justice Services
  • Enabling Authority: Appropriation Act - Item 38 (Special Session I, 1994)

Executive Summary:
The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is an attorney appointed to represent children who are involved in certain juvenile court proceedings. The appointment of a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is required by the Code of Virginia for any child who is alleged to be abused or neglected. According to § 16.1-266 of the Code of Virginia, the GAL's role is succinctly defined as "to represent the interests of the child." In response to recommendations of House Joint Resolution No. 490, a GAL pilot project was initiated to examine the effect of contractual payment agreements on the quality of GAL representation in abuse/neglect cases. The pilot project tests the idea that contract GALs will provide higher quality representation to children in these cases than GALs paid through the existing hourly payment system.

A workgroup consisting of representatives from the Commission on Youth, the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court, the Department of Criminal Justice Services, and the Public Defender Commission developed the pilot program methodology. In addition to other activities, the workgroup developed a personal services contract which outlined the GAL's responsibilities, including case completion requirements and duties required for the evaluation effort.

The Department of Criminal Justice Services was charged with the evaluation of this pilot. The evaluation was designed to examine the operation and impact of contractual GAL payment systems in three pilot sites. The evaluation methodology incorporated qualitative and quantitative data from two primary sources: (1) case-specific data collection forms constructed by the evaluators and completed by the contract GAL for each assigned case, and (2) phone interviews with the contract GALs, judges, and social work supervisors in the pilot sites.

Evaluation findings reveal that the program was generally well received by GALs, judges, and social services representatives. All stated that they would like to see the program continue and most felt that representation had improved in some way during the contract period. Courtroom participants indicated that experienced GALs who work consistently on these cases have the expertise to represent children more effectively than inexperienced GALs who take infrequent GAL assignments.

Based on the evaluation findings for the first year of the pilot, it is recommended that:

• the Committee on District Courts draft a policy which gives juvenile courts the authority to implement an alternative GAL assignment system which designates one or more selected lawyers to serve as GALs in cases involving children;

• limited data be collected in local juvenile courts to explore the financial implications of the designated contractual system. as well as other juvenile court programs;

• data collection and analysis continue in current pilot sites to examine the long-term effects of the pilot program.

A follow-up evaluation report should be submitted to the 1997 General Assembly to document findings for the second year of the pilot. This report should also discuss implementation of the designated GAL system.