Longform

THE CLIENTS

part 1 of 2
Twelve-year-old Alicia remembers the date of her entry into Denver's juvenile court system by heart. "July 17, 1991," she says, without having to think. On that day, the State of Colorado formally took charge of Alicia, having determined her parents were at least temporarily unfit due to their drug and alcohol problems. It was then that Alicia was assigned what is known as a guardian ad litem (GAL), a court-appointed attorney charged with representing her best interests in the proceedings to come. His name was Allen Alderman.

Through the three years that Alicia spent in the system, hearings were held on her behalf time and time again. What should be done with her? What was her "permanent plan"? Could her mother be rehabilitated to take her back home? Could her father? Each time, Alicia's guardian ad litem was called upon by the judge to determine what was in Alicia's best interests. In May 1994 Alicia was returned to her father and the case was declared closed.

To this day Alicia has no idea what Allen Alderman looks like. She says she's never met him, that he never came to visit her, and that she's never spoken with him. And, she says, he's never sent anyone from his office to meet with her in his stead.

For three years, Alderman, Denver's most prolific GAL, with hundreds of cases on his platter at any given time, merely showed up in court at the appropriate time. His presence fulfilled the statutory requirement that Alicia's rights and welfare be represented. No one else seemed to care whether he was adequately prepared, had conducted his own investigation or had even consulted with his client.

Now Alicia, a stringbean of a girl with curly blond hair who faces yet another legal battle regarding her custody, ticks off the qualifications she likes to see in an attorney. "I'd like someone to represent my interests," she says. "They actually show up. They at least go out and meet that person."

According to state law, children involved in juvenile court "dependency-and-neglect" cases--where a child is temporarily made a ward of the state while a judge determines whether they can someday be reunited with their parents--must be represented by a court-appointed guardian ad litem. The state spends $4.6 million per year on its GAL program because it recognizes that each party involved in a D&N case may have biases or motivations other than the best interests of the child. Parents can be overwhelmed by personal problems, pride, or competition with each other. And social workers, however well-meaning, may have other agendas.

"Social Services has other clients besides the child," says Denver Chief Juvenile Court Judge Dana Wakefield. "They have the taxpayer, department rules, their own administrative policy--they have other interests that may conflict with what is truly best for the child. That's why we have GALs there."

But GALs don't function like just any attorney. Because by law children are not considered competent to make their own decisions in such cases, the court appoints an attorney who is charged with recommending to the court the course of action that's "best" for the child. The theory is that the child--who otherwise would have no voice at all in the proceeding--gets someone who serves solely as their advocate, keeping their best interests above the fray in what are often lengthy, messy proceedings.

At least that's the idea.
In fact, hundreds of children wind up like Alicia, assigned to a GAL who may never even talk to them. At some court hearings, it's not unusual for the attorneys to fail to show up at all. Then there are those GALs who come to court and sit mutely while social workers and judges quibble over the fate of their clients.

Alicia will be back in court soon. Her father has become so violent that the county court has issued a restraining order against him. Now a judge must determine whether permanent custody should be awarded to Alicia's grandmother, with whom she is presently living. This time another attorney has been appointed as Alicia's guardian ad litem. When asked whether she feels bad about her first attorney, she answers, "It doesn't bother me. I got Laura."

Laura Cerasoli is in her third year at the University of Michigan law school and is a legal intern at the Children's Legal Clinic in Denver. Cerasoli picked up Alicia's case after it left Denver District Court and landed in Denver County Court.

Cerasoli says she inherited the case after the county court asked Alderman to continue with the case on a pro bono basis and he refused. She says the case "was a mess" when she got it. "The custody issue had never been resolved," she says. "The father had custody but legally couldn't see the child. The child was living with her grandmother--who had no rights whatsoever."

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Michelle Johnston