I grew up during the ’50s and ’60s. During that time, many believed a child should be seen, not heard in the presence of adults. This belief system from a bygone era implied a certain bias that was standard even in the court system. Thankfully, times have changed. Today, a child’s “voice” has taken on a new dimension, especially in high conflict child custody cases where parents battle and bargain for parental control. For me, a volunteer child advocate, I find it inconceivable that not that long ago a child’s voice was absent from court proceedings, withheld from reach in the midst of life-altering legal decisions. If the child’s best interest is the north star by which all decisions are based, then allowing the child to have a voice in that decision would seem to make the most sense, especially when deciding the child’s custodian. That decision, above all others, sets into motion a series of interrelated issues and subsequent problems that can significantly impact a child’s sense of well-being. These concerns include lugging clothes, toys, and school projects between households; living with a step-parent or sharing a home with step-siblings; changing schools or neighborhoods; moving away from a best friend and on occasion, having to leave their home state, extended family, or even their beloved pet.
My role as a child advocate attorney is to represent my the child’s desires as their lawyer, unlike a guardian ad litem whose purpose is to look out for the best interests of the minor child. Certainly, the child’s best interest is paramount, but as a child advocate attorney, my primary focus centers on the child’s wishes. As a child advocate attorney, I am the child’s legal representative on decisions involving the custodial schedule. It is my role to discuss, counsel, and suggest alternatives if the child’s wishes are contrary to the child’s ultimate best interest or safety. Most importantly, it is my duty on behalf of my client (the child) to communicate his or her wishes to all parties and the court.
I recall one client, in particular, a 12-year old girl. In preparing for our first meeting, I spent several hours reviewing the court file. It was evident from the pleadings that the parental relationship was highly contentious. The Court had intervened on several occasions, and despite the parent’s relationship, they had produced two incredible children, one remaining minor, my client.
As I thought about how to set up this first meeting with my client, I knew it would be important to create a setting where my client would feel comfortable, so we decided to meet at McDonalds. That decision proved to be a positive one for both of us at it ultimately became our regular meeting destination as we prepared for the custody trial.
It was almost 3:00 p.m. as I packed up my briefcase and headed out of the office to McDonalds. I was excited to meet my client, and I hoped she looked forward to meeting me. Arriving at McDonalds, I stepped out of the car with my briefcase in hand. Perhaps my dark suit and briefcase would come across a little too stuffy and impersonal for a meeting with my 12-year-old client, so I quickly discarded the briefcase and blazer in the car.
The meeting went great. We talked for almost an hour over French Fries and a coke. Our relationship grew over the course of the case. I was amazed at her poise and thought processes as she evaluated the options and arrived at her decision. By the trial date, I was well prepared to represent my client.
As her child advocate attorney, I participated in the depositions of the parents, interviewed other family members, and met with the other attorneys in the case. Submerging myself into the case, the family dynamics, and discussing the issues with the other attorneys only affirmed my client’s position. I felt confident in her decision. It was well informed. I understood what she wanted. I had gotten to know her very well, as we had spent significant time together before the trial, discussing all the options of what the Court might do based on all the evidence.
The custody trial lasted three days. I participated at my little desk strategically placed between the other two parties since my client was not present. The Court allowed me to make opening statements, closing arguments, and examine the parties. At the end of the trial, I presented my client’s desires, explained how she derived at her desires and how she viewed her life with both parents whom she loved and adored. It was an honor to be the “voice” of the person at the center of this trial.
The child advocate program is a volunteer program. You are not paid to represent the minor child, but for me, the reward was the experience itself – meeting a client so young and yet, wise beyond her years; slowly getting to know her one meeting at a time, building that essential trust. In a world of parental conflict, we tend to lose sight of the young person or persons at the center of it all – a young person with feelings, concerns, and questions as to the changes they will have to endure in their life. Without the child advocate attorney program, my young client’s valuable insight and thoughts would otherwise not have been heard by the Court. In this case, the Court considered all the evidence from all the parties, and in the end, the “voice” of reason was the “voice” of a 12-year-old.