When a case goes to court that involves a child, such as divorce, the court sometimes appoints a person to represent the child’s interests. They’re called Guardians ad Litem, or GALs. And while Maine’s 318 actively rostered GALs are seen as playing a vital role in some of the most contentious family court cases, some complain that there’s a lack of oversight on a profession that can have a profound effect on a family’s future. Maine Chief Justice Leigh Sauffley is working on a plan to strengthen the system.
When a guardian ad litem–or “GAL”–is appointed to a case, their job is to gather facts about a child’s situation and report back to court. This can mean home visits, interviews with school personnel and pediatricians–anything that can help inform what is in the best interest of a child.
In the past two years, GALs have been appointed in about 6 to 7 percent of family matter cases in Maine. And while talk about the need for reform has been brewing for years, things have come to a head lately. A newly-formed group called Maine Guardian ad Litem Alert is part of the reason. It was started by Paul Collins of Rockland after he had a bad experience during his divorce case. His father, Dr. Jerome Collins, is also involved in the effort.
“We had, like many people, witnessed with growing disbelief the operations of a particular guardian ad litem,” he says. “At first we thought it was us. We thought we didn’t understand the process, and then gradually came to the conclusion that this was just plain crazy. It didn’t make any sense.”
Collins says the guardian ad litem appointed in his son’s divorce case made unprofessional statements about his 7-year-old grandson in reports, and drew inaccurate conclusions about his and his wife’s ability to care for him.
“Although I have been in clinical practice as a psychiatrist for 36 years, and though I have taught at Harvard Medical School, worked for the surgeon general of the Army, and my wife was a dietician at Mass General, we were told that we were unable to see our grandson without supervised visits,” he says.
Collins says complaints went nowhere. He says he and his wife eventually challenged the guardian ad litem’s recommendation in court and won, after spending $5,000 in legal fees. Collins says major reforms on the GAL system are needed: Most importantly, establishing a formal complaint resolution process and better oversight on the profession.
“Now I’m not saying that there aren’t some that are doing their function that don’t have integrity and so on, but there’s no regulation, it’s strictly a matter of individual character,” he says. “There’s no oversight.”
“I think that isolation and lack of support is a real problem for us,” says Toby Hollander, a guardian ad litem and a lawyer. In fact, most of the guardians ad litem in Maine — 78 percent — are lawyers. Most of the rest are mental health professionals. To become a GAL, they must complete at least 16 hours of specialized training and receive approval from the Chief Judge.
Hollander says most guardians ad litem do a good job, and numbers from the state support that assertion. In the past two years, there have been complaints in only one percent of all cases. Nonetheless, Hollander agrees that improvements are needed. To that end, he formed the Maine Guardian ad Litem Institute eight years ago, which connects GALs through a listserve, study groups and mentoring program.
“”We want supervision, we want support, we want someone to go to when we’re having problems. We want feedback on the work that we do, and we don’t get it now.””
Maine Chief Justice Leigh Soufley is well aware of concerns about the GAL system. In 2009, she asked the Legislature to create an oversight board. But at an annual cost of $400,000 dollars, she was told the state didn’t have the money.
“”When you have a professional who it is alleged has not done what a professional should have done in those settings, there should be an independent body that reviews the standards for that profession, finds the facts as to what happened, and then decides whether or not the professional has done something inappropriate,” Saufley says. “Just as would happen if you had a complaint about your doctor or if a social worker were alleged to have acted inappropriately, there is an independent body that looks at all of that. And that’s what should happen here.”
Another problem, says Justice Saufley, is confusion about exactly what role a guardian ad litem should have. She says while the law states GALs are to gather facts and report to court, their responsibilities have gradually expanded beyond that.
“What do we really want these guardians to be doing? Should they be in fact acting as people who are similar to counselors or social workers? Are they acting in the nature of a mediator?” she asks. “In many instances they volunteer those services along the way. Or are we going to identify them as investigators who report back to the court?”
Justice Saufley says another complaint about GALs is cost — in family court cases, it’s the parents who are responsbile for paying GALs, at rates that typically range between $100 to $200 per hour. Toby Hollander points out that parents could avoid those costs by reaching agreement, thereby eliminating the need for a GAL.
Still, Justice Sauffley says she’ll look at options to reduce costs. Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials say they support increased accountability for guardians ad litem. Justice Sauffley says she’ll work with stakeholders over the coming months to draft her recommendations, and present them to the Legislature in October.
We would like to thank MPBN and reporter Patty B.Wight for writing this report.
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