Who’s Who in the Zoo?

I couldn’t resist. If you’ve ever sat in juvenile court for any length of time, you know what I mean. It can feel like a zoo. Here’s who’s at the table:

  1. The parents or prior custodians (sometimes is a relative like an aunt or uncle).
  2. The child who is supposed to be the most important player. There are lots of laws that govern the decisions regarding reunification of families (parents and kids) but the one that should trump all is the best interest of the child.
  3. The caseworker. For more info on what this job entails, visit http://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/child-and-family-social-worker
  4. The foster parents or other substitute caregivers (such as extended family)

The court players:

  1. The Guardian ad Litem (GAL) for the child. Guardian ad Litem is Latin for ‘guardian in the meantime’. This person may or may not be an attorney. The GAL is responsible for representing the best interest of the child in court proceedings. If the GAL is not an attorney, he or she will also have an attorney to represent him or her. The GAL is charged with independently investigating all issues related to the child and the case. The child might also have an attorney to represent their wishes, which may be different from what their GAL believes is in his or her best interests.
  2. The attorney representing the caseworker. This lawyer is usually from the local prosecutor’s office.
  3. The public defender representing the parent. If mom and dad have separate interests, they get separate attorneys.
  4. If a family member or other person (sometimes foster parents who’ve had a child in their home for a significant period of time) files for custody of a child, that person normally becomes a party to the case and also has an attorney present.
  5. The Judge. This is person who presides over court cases and makes decisions about a child’s life. In high population areas judges delegate these cases to Magistrates/Commissioners/Referees who look and act like judges. Sometimes they even wear robes but mostly you can tell them apart because they sit and face everyone else.
  6.  The Guardian ad Litem for the parent. If the parent is unable to comprehend the court proceedings and needs extra help with explanation, a GAL will be appointed for the parent as well as the attorney.

The other players:

  1. The child’s therapist if he has one.
  2. The child’s teacher(s).
  3. The child’s pediatrician or team of doctors if medical needs exist.
  4. People helping the parents such as therapists, drug counselors, psychiatrists, parenting educators.
  5. People who have been proposed by parents as potential placement options such as extended family members, family friends, godparents, etc.

Is your head spinning yet? There can be up to six or eight attorneys involved on a case involving one child. Normally all of them are paid through government dollars.

Getting that many attorneys to agree on something is nearly impossible. Getting that many calendars in sync to schedule a trial in a reasonable timeframe can be just as difficult. It is easy to see how cases are delayed due to the sheer volume of calendars involved when scheduling cases.