We have received notification of Toby Hollander’s, head of the Maine Guardian Ad Litem Institute, response to the comments posted on the State of Maine judicial branch as well as the hearing held on May 31st in Portland.
Please keep in mind that Mr. Hollander is a guardian ad litem and advocates for guardian ad litems so with all due respect, he may not see the need for substantial change as so many others apparently do.
Mr. Hollander writes; “There is little historical data regarding the number of complaints against GALs since rostering began in 1999. In the past two years, there have been 27 complaints lodged with the Chief Judge regarding GAL performance. The Chief Judge has referred two cases for hearing. There has been one case which resulted in a written reprimand and another with a verbal reprimand. Anecdotally, over time other cases have been resolved by the GAL voluntarily removing him or herself from the Roster.” When I started writing about the issues with GAL’s a little over a year and a half ago, I had no idea what a GAL was but found out that they are considered an officer of the court. That being said, I would have hesitated to question someone in such a capacity as we have also been told that over and over by all the people we have heard from. The complaint process, even if someone thought to complain, has never been transparent so that could account for the low number of complaints Mr. Hollander is quoting.
Mr. Hollander continues: “Reasoning. In a system that is encouraging complaints against professionals who are charged with making difficult, heart-rending judgments, an adequate screening mechanism to sort out potentially valid complaints, as opposed to “sour grapes” complaints from those who are unhappy with the recommendations, is indispensable. At present the Chief Judge or his Deputy performs this task, at no extra cost to taxpayers or anyone else. Despite an impression created to the contrary, court data suggest that complaints against Guardians ad Litem are actually rare. At 13 or 14 complaints per year, or roughly one a month, it does not appear that this is a significant burden on the duties of the Chief Judge, or his deputy,such that independent staff would be necessary. It goes without saying that the existence of judicial experience resulting in appointment to the position provides the Chief Judge with the necessary expertise to make those determinations regarding the potential validity of complaints. It is possible that an increase in complaints as a result of greater publicity and accessibility might necessitate consideration of adding staff, but we recommend that a“wait and see” approach be taken before committing to additional staff.” “Wait and see?” We, the families of Maine, have waited. We have waited many years with many families lives torn apart. We believe we have waited too long as it is, no more waiting, Mr. Hollander! And the use of the term ‘sour grapes’ we find insulting. In the hundreds of emails we received the complaints we got were more to do with procedures not followed, lack of professional boundaries and diagnosis’s being made by guardian ad litems than in the results attained.
Mr. Hollander goes on: “Another line of suggestions is to abandon the “best interests of the child” framework under which Maine has been operating for many decades, as though that phrase is completely independent of and undefined by the factors described within the statute which the Court (and GALs) must consider. That is an extreme remedy and would have no impact upon GAL oversight whatsoever. It “throws the baby out with the bath.” Another alternative could be to create a Board under Title 5, within the Department of Professional Regulation, but that would involve hiring and training staff and potentially paying per diem and costs to Board members, i.e., it could be costly.” We at Maine Gal Alert have proposed the standard “Is the child safe?” as opposed to the vague guideline “in the child’s best interest” It presumes that a Guardian ad litem using this standard has been anointed by God (and the appointing judge) and that the ensuing GAL determinations are made objectively and above the contentious fray of a marriage dissolving. We have been appalled by reports of GAL recommendations that propose assigning a child’s custody to a parent with an extensive history of alcoholism, prescription drug abuse and felonious legal issues- especially when there are other, safer, better choices. In these cases there has been no assessment of child’s safety or of the older idea of “parental fitness”. The new, hip view is that at all costs the GAL should avoid “social or cultural bias”. In bending over backwards to meet the avoidance of social or cultural bias, the “broad-minded” GAL must give due consideration to high risk parents, who might have been considered “unfit” in previous years
The response again from the Maine Guardian Ad Litem Institute is that there is no money for reform. But our diagnosis is “no imagination”, no courage, no determination to resolve the scandal. Guardians ad litem pose problems in other states, not just Maine. What are these states doing? What is the perspective from Washington? What about enlarging the perspective of problem solving participation beyond “the usual suspects”? In the process of assessing the degree of the GAL problems, we have talked with numerous “service consumers”, people at every level of government, resources outside of Maine and there are ideas and answers, if you look. It is the apparent passivity in accepting the GAL scandal for the last several years that is very troubling.
Finally let’s touch on billing. Financial problems and divorces frequently go hand in hand. Divorces often come on the tail end of marriages with financial disasters. Finances are disrupted, homes in jeopardy, debts are out of control, credit is broken or nonexistent . A GAL invoice for 1/4 of one’s annual income (or more), adds additional problems. The cost of a divorce can easily run to $25,000.00 or more. A GAL’s fees can frequently exceed $12,000.00. And … these are conservative figures. How do the parties “finance” these expenses? Why do GAL charges go “off the chart”? This is an important question that should be investigated by the Judicial Branch. Our hunch is that excessively high GAL charges are the result of GAL “mission creep”, services that go beyond the statutory regulations. Getting to know the child, obtaining and reviewing records, talking with professionals and families, and other data collection activities, along with appearing in court are not apt to generate huge fees that go beyond retainers. It is the social service type of activity, the counseling, the mediation attempts that are riddled with GAL role conflicts of interest and that gobble up hours and raise fees. Restricting GALs to statutory activities only would be a start at cutting costs.
Full content of Mr. Hollander’s response to the Maine Judicial Branch: