A Sit-Down with Rebekah Azar Rashidfarokhi, Director of the Guardian ad Litem for Minors Program at CVLS
Rebekah joined Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) in 2007 and was named Director of the Guardian ad Litem for Minors Program in 2011. A fluent Spanish-speaker, Rebekah worked at an immigration clinic at the US-Mexico border and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Colombia during law school at the University of Georgia.
First off, can you explain what a guardian ad litem does?
A guardian ad litem, or GAL, represents the best interests of children in contested probate cases. In these cases, where adults are fighting over who should care for children, the GAL’s role is to ensure the long-term safety and well-being of the children caught in the middle. Judges often refer to GALs as the eyes and ears of the court.
We meet with all parties, conduct a thorough investigation, and advocate for children both in and outside the courtroom. Our investigation also includes interviewing or obtaining information about other members of the households, including stepparents and partners, reviewing school records, and talking with medical providers and others who have significant contact with the child or family. We often help establish a visitation schedule, so the child can spend time with all interested parties, when appropriate. Ultimately, the GAL writes a detailed report for the court, and recommends which party would be the most appropriate caretaker. GALs encourage the parties to work together for the child’s benefit, and whenever possible, try to help the parties reach an agreement.
In CVLS cases, the pro bono GAL is normally the only attorney involved, so the scope of our role is broad, and often includes helping families get the children appropriate medical care, educational and social services, public benefits, and access to other community-based resources.
Through the CVLS program, you oversee more than 200 volunteer guardians ad litem. What do you look for when you recruit and train a lawyer to serve in this position?
Thankfully, all CVLS GALs are with us because they want to be. They have a personal interest in representing kids, and they enjoy the role. GAL work is not for everyone. It is often contentious, and is more comparable to social work than typical litigation. Good GALs enjoy that personal aspect, even in challenging cases. Strong cross-cultural skills can help GALs be effective and empathetic when working with low-income families. Many GALs have mediation skills to help parties find common ground. That said, any attorney can learn to be a good GAL regardless of experience. The most important qualification is the desire to help children who would otherwise have no one to speak for them.
What would you like elected officials to know about the children and families your program works with?
Most people do not know that all guardianship cases involving children for all of Cook County are heard in one courtroom, by one judge. There is no court reporter in that courtroom, no social workers, no caseworkers, no subsidy to guardians, and no resources. Volunteers and students from CVLS and Loyola Law School are the only advocates representing hundreds of low-income children each year in what are often bitterly-contested guardianship cases. Those are only a fraction of the cases heard in that courtroom. A great number of the matters are serious, involving abuse, addiction, and other issues resulting in trauma to children. Some cases belong in juvenile court. The lack of judicial and financial resources dedicated to this issue, as compared with other areas of law, is disheartening.
I’m sure your work can be draining at times. What was the last book or TV show you enjoyed for pleasure?
Between my job, two young children who love sports, and other personal and professional responsibilities, I try to find time for leisure when I can! I recently read a book by Jeff Speck called Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time. The author discusses practical steps to make American cities and neighborhoods more vibrant, healthy, economically sustainable, and pedestrian friendly. I love cities – – living in them, visiting them, and reading about them. I would have enjoyed being an urban planner, but I am technically and spatially challenged. I only know how to read, write, and argue–I was lucky to find a job where I do exactly that!
CVLS’ mission is to coordinate, support and promote the voluntary pro bono legal representation of the Chicago area’s poor and working poor. The IEJF has proudly supported the CVLS Guardian ad Litem program since its first grant cycle in 2001.