The Ethics of My Cousin Vinny – Is this Guardian ad litem training?

What is involved in training Guardians ad litem? Given the Guardians ad litem job, one might imagine a rigorous training program in which professionals designed the curriculum to match the job description, rules and…. the needs of the consumers. So much is on the line –  the recommendation of a Guardian ad litem  can and will have a major impact on the dynamics of any divorcing family.  It might be expected that the training they receive would be top notch. The courses they take would have some bearing on the job Guardians ad litem are authorized to do.

In the past several years the Judicial Branch, Maine Bar, MEGALI and Kids First Center, to name a few organizations, have offered training and continuing training (please note that what is offered is not continuing education) to the states Guardians ad litem. We would ask to what legally mandated, job related aim are courses such as:

The Ethics of My Cousin Vinny
Collection of GAL fees
Parental Alienation: What’s the GAL’s Role?
Youth Participation in Court Proceedings

None of these organizations that train have a specialized training background in curriculum development for job related training, such as one would get from an institution such as a college, or technical school or the very focused training used in large business enterprises. The courses listed come from the continuing training list that is available to Guardians ad litem. There is no description of what the courses entail and if they are relevant to the role of Guardian ad litem.

Then there is the question of if the person(s) giving the training is uniquely qualified to give training on the topic at hand?

Take for example the following:

Understanding, Assessing & Responding to Needs of the Triangulated Child – This interesting course might be just the thing for continuing education in social work, but Guardians ad litem are not social workers and by the rules published, they are not supposed to be doing social work.  Triangulation is a term that is used to explain family dynamics where one member of a family will not talk with another directly. Instead a third family member is used which creates a triangle of communication. It is a term used in psychology to help explain dysfunctional family dynamics. This is not a topic that is relevant to the role of Guardian ad litem. In addition, for a course such as this one would expect that it would be presented by someone who has a background in psychology. In this case it was presented by a lawyer.

The Social Cognitive Connection – This is another social worker course – good for social workers, but off topic for Guardians ad litem. What the term means is that people do not learn new behaviors only by trying them out. The survival of people is dependent on how people act in a socially acceptable way and that this behavior is rewarded. It is a term used in psychology to explain the way people learn, understand and react to the environment in which they live, work and play. This course was presented by a member of the board of directors of an organization that is heavily connected to the Judicial Branch. This organization is so connected to the Judicial Branch that it is promoted on the web site. There is no indication that the presenter has any background to present such a topic, or that she tailored her remarks to the specifics of the Guardians ad litem legally mandated job.

Parental Alienation – What’s the GAL’s Role?: This is another trendy topic for social workers but far removed from what the Guardians ad litem role is defined as. Parental Alienation is when a child expresses a strong dislike or even hatred towards one parent – usually the non-custodial parent. To explore this dynamic takes hours of time and as a result generates billable hours and social work improvision. This course was presented by an organization that represents the best interest of the Guardian ad litem – not a psychologist or even a social worker. Maybe a more appropriate tile should have been “Parental Alienation – How a GAL can profit from it!”

While the above examples may be fun or interesting to attend, are they courses that will improve a Guardian ad litems mandated job performance? Probably not because as a Guardian ad litem the role requires the investigation of facts surrounding the divorcing family and the child(ren) involved. It does not require the use by the Guardian ad litem of psychology and sociology – that is what the professionals in those areas are there for. Those professionals have the education and training to interpert and understand a child, and have spent years studying the concepts needed to do so. A few hours training does not give a Guardian ad litem the needed tools to accomplish the task. Yet quite often they do. The need to tie training tightly to job function and only to job function seems to be lost on the family courts and Guardians ad litem themselves. The result are fun courses that lead to the use of junk science, psycho-eugenics and moral equivalency that infects the courts like a virus.


When Guardians ad litem, soak up “My Cousin Vinny“, it is at the expense of learning the less “entertaining” rules for Guardians ad litem.  To us, it appears to be a significant defect in Guardian ad litem training.  It also makes the reports of off topic/off role improvisations and creativity in the Guardian ad litem’s role more understandable.  “Social Work lite” takes some Guardians ad litem back to the understandable security of their parent profession but it corrupts Guardian ad litem functioning (and confuses the public) by neglecting the role and functioning of a Guardian ad litem – that of a court appointed investigator.

The reform of Guardian ad litem training has to be a vital aspect of Guardian ad litem and court reform.  Sorry Vinny, you’re fired!

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Would you want a Guardian ad litem with this kind of training?