The COVID-19 public health emergency has ground many activities to a halt, including the vast majority of matters at Probate and Family Courts across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Although the impact of court closures has been felt most strongly in the paucity of hearings, other departments, like drug testing, lawyer of the day programs, conciliation and mediation sessions, have also been impacted by the requirements of state and local orders and advisories.
One of the least-reported impacts, however, applies to the field of Guardian ad Litem work. GALs, who – as part of their investigations – have to engage in highly laborious and involved fact-finding activities, now face the added burden of determining whether the investigations that are in progress can continue in some fashion or should just be suspended until restrictions abate.
The Probate and Family Court has issued Standing Order 3-20, which provides that (1) GAL appointments made prior to March 18, 2020 are to be extended until May 18, 2020; (2) GAL reports due to be filed before May 18, 2020 now can be filed up to six weeks following their current due date, unless a judge determines that the issue is time-sensitive and a different deadline is warranted; (3) GAL investigations started prior to March 18, 2020 are suspended until May 5, 2020, unless the GAL is able to conduct the evaluations telephonically or by videoconference; and (4) the standing order is to be extended, amended, or expired on or before May 15, 2020.
The most difficult issue for GALs to grapple with will surely be provision 3, and deciding whether ongoing GAL investigation can adequately be handled by telephone or video. While telephone calls do make up a large portion of a GAL’s work – namely in interviews of collaterals and professionals involved with the family, like doctors, teachers, and counselors – a large portion of the GAL’s work is done in person. Particularly, meetings with the parents, visits to each parent’s household, meetings with the child, are all instrumental to the GAL fact-finding process. The ability to visit a person’s home and see first-hand the home’s conditions, people’s body language, the physical space and its set-up, and other such matters, would be severely curtailed by the restriction on in-home visits.
GALs face difficult questions. Investigations are time-consuming and laborious, and it is in everyone’s interests that such investigations be completed timely so that a report can issue that will aid the resolution of a case. Suspending these investigations only prolongs the issues and creates further protraction. However, the alternative of not being as thorough with the investigation – and perhaps even failure to comply with the provisions of the standing order governing GAL evaluations – could also create many challenges or suboptimal results. As with most issues relating to this pandemic, GALs have difficult choices to make regarding ongoing investigations.