Representation of Children in Child Abuse and Neglect Proceedings - District of Columbia

Date: June 2021

Making The Appointment

Citation: Ann. Code § 16-2304; D.C. Court Rules, Fam. Div., Appx. III(I)

In every case involving a neglected child that results in a judicial proceeding, the superior court shall appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) who is an attorney to represent the child in the proceedings.

In court rules: The court is not required to appoint a GAL but may, in the exercise of its discretion, appoint a GAL to advocate for the child's best interests in cases in which the following condition or conditions exist:

  • There are past or present allegations of neglect and/or abuse of the child or a sibling, or there is a past or pending case involving the neglect and/or abuse of the child or involving a sibling.
  • There are past or present allegations of domestic violence, or there is a past or pending domestic violence case involving a significant other, spouse, or family member where substantive issues involving placement, supervision, interaction, and access are implicated.
  • There are present and/or past mental health and/or substance abuse issues involving the child, a sibling, a parent(s), or others with significant access or interaction with the child.
  • There are special needs, disabilities, or medical conditions involving the child and/or parent(s) or others with significant access to the child.
  • There is a significant other, spouse, or family member with considerable interaction and/or access to the child who has a criminal conviction that may reasonably implicate the health, safety, and/or welfare of the child.
  • The child is of a developmentally appropriate age with reasoned judgment and has voiced a consistent desire to participate in the subject proceedings or has otherwise expressed certain views and concerns.
  • The appointment shall facilitate the judge's ability to decide the case with full knowledge of and access to relevant and material information, which is necessary in a best-interests analysis, as required by case law and pertinent statute.

The Use of Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs)

Citation: Ann. Code § 16-2372

There is established a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) program to provide trained volunteers whose primary purpose is to ensure that children who are the subject of certain proceedings in the family division of the superior court of the District of Columbia are provided with appropriate service and case planning that is in their best interests.

The court, in any appropriate action, may appoint an individual provided by the CASA program. A CASA shall have access to and the use of the court record in a proceeding in which the advocate has been appointed.

The Board of Judges of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia may adopt rules governing the implementation and operation of the program, including, but not limited to, training, selection, and supervision of volunteers.


Citation: Ann. Code §16-2304; Ct. Rules, Fam. Div., App. III(I); Sup. Ct. CAN Att. Prac. Stds., Rules A-2, A

The GAL shall be an attorney.

In court rules: The lawyer appointed to serve as the GAL shall be a member in good standing of the District of Columbia Bar or authorized to practice law in the District of Columbia pursuant to D.C. Court of Appeals Rule 49 and otherwise satisfies the requirements for an appointment as set forth in these rules.

Prior to appearing as a GAL, the attorney shall receive the necessary training to provide competent representation, including familiarity with the following topics:

  • Relevant local and Federal laws, court decisions and rules, administrative orders, and applicable legal standards
  • The role of the GAL in custody cases
  • District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct
  • Evidence and court procedure
  • Basic trial skills
  • Information pertaining to recognizing, evaluating, and understanding evidence of child neglect and abuse
  • Information regarding family dynamics and dysfunction, domestic violence, and substance abuse
  • Information on competence with regard to cultural, racial, ethnic, economic, or other differences among the GAL, parties, and the child.

As part of the training process, GALs shall be assigned, as determined appropriate by the referring or sponsoring agency or organization, to mentors or supervisors with family law experience who have represented parties in domestic relations cases. GALs should seek the advice and input of these more experienced lawyers.

Attorneys who wish to serve as GALs will be required to complete a minimum of 16 hours of training in the following categories:

  • Statutory law and rules regarding neglect and abuse cases in the District of Columbia
  • The role of the GAL and attorney for the parent and other adult parties
  • Permanency options and related guardianship, adoption, and custody cases
  • Ethics related to representing parties in the abuse and neglect system
  • Basic trial skills
  • Courtroom observation of at least one initial hearing

All attorneys appearing before the superior court in an abuse or neglect case shall be familiar with relevant Federal and D.C. laws, regulations, and policies affecting child welfare. Counsel shall only accept an appointment or otherwise appear in child abuse and neglect proceedings if they are knowledgeable of substantive and procedural child abuse and neglect laws and have participated in the required training programs.

All child abuse and neglect attorneys are required to complete a minimum of 12 hours of continuing legal education annually. At least 1 hour shall be devoted to trial, evidence, and ethics, and at least 1 hour shall be multidisciplinary training (i.e., sessions on interviewing children, understanding different types of therapy, developmental stages of children, understanding substance abuse and mental illness, developmental disabilities, etc.).

Appropriate training topics may include, but are not limited to, relevant legal topics as well as specific child welfare topics such as the following:

  • Federal and D.C. neglect law
  • Professional ethics
  • Termination of parental rights law
  • Evidence and trial procedure
  • Rules of civil procedure
  • Legal permanency options
  • Adoption and guardianship subsidies
  • Custody and child support
  • Developmental psychology and disabilities
  • Communicating with clients in developmentally appropriate language
  • Medical issues and medical evidence in child abuse and neglect cases
  • Understanding mental illnesses and mental habilitation
  • Issues arising from substance use
  • The impact of domestic violence on children and families
  • Cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic issues
  • Available services and resources for families
  • Immigration law issues that relate to child welfare
  • Education laws and resources

Specific Duties

Citation: Ann. Code § 16-2304; D.C. Sup. Ct. CAN Appx., Att. Prac. Stds., Rules B-2, C-1

The GAL shall in general be charged with the representation of the child's best interests.

In court rules: If the GAL's assessment of the child's best interests conflicts with the views of the child, the GAL shall notify the court of the child's views, and, in some circumstances, an attorney may be appointed to represent the child's expressed interests. The new attorney for the child will represent the child's expressed interests, while the GAL will make recommendations to the court with regard to the child's best interests.

A GAL is an attorney appointed by the court to represent the child in abuse and neglect proceedings. The GAL is charged with representation of the child's best interests. A GAL fulfills a dual role as an independent fact finder and as zealous advocate for the child's best interests. The GAL should also monitor all litigation concerning the child, such as delinquency matters and any civil proceedings.

The role of the GAL is to advocate for the child's safety, well-being, permanence, and best interests. In serving this role, the GAL must fulfill the following functions:

  • An independent investigator whose task is to discover all the relevant facts
  • An advocate whose task is to ensure all the relevant facts are before the court at all hearings
  • A counsel whose task is to ensure the court has all available options before it at all stages of the proceedings
  • An advocate whose task is to ensure the child's interests are fully protected

The GAL is responsible for ensuring that the child's wishes are expressed to the court, even if these wishes differ from the GAL's recommendations.

The GAL should always be mindful of the child's safety, well-being, and permanency interests and ensure these issues are raised at every hearing. Further, the GAL should take all steps to promote speedy permanence for the child, which will generally mean the following:

  • Attempting to reduce case delay
  • Ensuring the issue of reasonable efforts is raised and addressed at all hearings
  • Working with the agency responsible for the care of the child to identify and provide appropriate services to the family and find the child a permanent home

In determining what is in the child's best interests, the GAL should use objective criteria. The criteria for determining what is in the child's best interests should include, but not be limited to the following:

  • Interviews/observations and/or discussions based on the child's developmental stage with the child in an environment familiar to the child
  • A full and efficient independent investigation, including interviews and consultation with the child's caregivers, relatives, therapists, teachers, doctors, social worker, and other service providers to assess the child's circumstances
  • Careful investigation of available kin interested in being a placement option
  • An inquiry into all available placement and visitation alternatives (including siblings)

As part of the GAL's duty to determine and represent the child's best interests, the GAL may, during the course of the case, advocate for services for other parties that the GAL believes is in the child's best interests for that party to receive. For example, the GAL may advocate for a parent to receive substance use treatment or assistance with housing.

How the Representative Is Compensated

Citation: Ann. Code § 16-2326.01

An attorney who is appointed to serve as GAL for a child who is the subject of a neglect proceeding shall, at the end of the representation or at the end of a segment of the representation, be compensated at a rate not less than the hourly rates established in D.C. Code § 11-2604. The attorney may also make a claim for expenses reasonably incurred during the course of the representation.

Compensation for each case shall be subject to the following limitations:

  • For all proceedings from initial hearing through disposition, the maximum compensation shall be $1,980.
  • For all subsequent proceedings other than termination of parental rights, the maximum compensation shall be $1,980 per year.
  • For proceedings to terminate parental rights, the maximum compensation shall be $2,700.
  • For appeal of trial court orders, the maximum compensation shall be $1,350 per case.

A separate claim for compensation and reimbursement shall be made to the superior court of the District of Columbia for representation before that court and to the court of appeals for representation before the court of appeals. Each claim shall be supported by a sworn written statement specifying the time expended, services rendered, and expenses incurred while the case was pending before the court as well as the compensation and reimbursement applied for or received in the same case from any other source. The superior court or court of appeals shall fix the compensation and reimbursement to be paid to the attorney.