“IF WE’RE NOT AT THE TABLE, WE’RE ON THE MENU!”

We found that the Judicial Branch’s hearing on May 31st was a rewarding experience. They have heard- and are hearing- us. At the hearing they listened carefully, many of us spoke and offered a variety of diagnoses of the GAL problems, as well as proposing an amazing range of ideas for fixing them.There was a good human feeling, coming from a respectful process.

But … though we say it was a  very good beginning, we’d also say, “We’re not home free yet!” There is work to be done on an actual plan for reform.

One of the many problems that need to be resolved is the GAL able to diagnose a child?  Is it within a GAL’s ability and/or job description to make a diagnosis?

Another problem as we see it, is that no matter how badly a case is handled, not in the results produced or custody determined but in procedures followed or lack thereof, the guardian ad litem has immunity. In several cases we have read about the court of appeals reviewed the cases and noted that immunity only applies if the guardian ad litem is acting within the scope of her duties. If a guardian ad litem is exceeding the scope of those duties then immunity does not protect the guardian ad litem. Those rulings are very rare but we do not understand why they should be.

We believe that switching GAL’s should work in the same way as obtaining a different attorney. If your guardian ad litem is deficient in his or her duties or if you have a complete disagreement in all aspects of what both of you see as an agreeable situation for custody or visitation, allow a change in the guardian ad litem.

Mandate detailed billing that is updated and available to you, the client, on a monthly basis. Having a bill loaded with vague phrasing as in ‘sent an email’ or ‘wrote a letter’ tells you nothing. We would never accept that from a doctor, a lawyer or a plumber, why should it be acceptable from a GAL?

The expense has been a constant concern and roadblock for any real change to oversight, here is a list with lots of options to choose from, surely one or more would be within our means. Clearly, what Maine has now isn’t working.

• Move the Office of the Guardian ad Litem to the executive branch,and place it in an existing department. Or
• Move the Office of the Guardian ad Litem to the executive branch and make it an independent executive branch agency that reports to an appointed oversight board Or
• Move the Office of the Guardian ad Litem to the executive branch and make it part of the Attorney General’s Office. Or
• Leave the Office of the Guardian ad Litem in the judicial branch but have it report to a board appointed by the Judicial Council. Oversight by this new board could at least partially resolve the ethical conflict of having the Judicial Council supervise the GAL.

We deeply appreciate the mere fact that this hearing was held, that so many people attended and participated, that the press has helped to highlight the issues, that the legislature has given a charge to the JB and that the Chief Justice and other Justices are responding with energy, openness and all due speed.

But we are wary of counting our chickens before they are hatched, and we strongly feel that consumers need to be involved in the planning process at the JB.  We don’t want to be reacting to a “done deal”.

This has been a great start and we certainly have gotten the attention of those who matter most in the State of Maine. But to relax before changes are implemented would be a huge mistake.

Comments for the needed change are due by July 1st, 2012, this doesn’t leave much time! If any of your concerns are addressed in this article, feel free to copy and paste but adapt it to your situation.

Please send your ideas for the improvement of the guardian ad litem system due by July 1st, 2012 to:  lawcourt.clerk@courts.maine.gov

Remember, if we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu!

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