THE JUDICIAL BRANCH HAS TURNED ITS BACK ON THE PEOPLE OF MAINE
Since this Spring, there has been a growing, grassroots movement in Maine, advocating that the Judicial Branch reform its Guardian ad litem program. Meetings have been held, problems have been presented in detail, a report was sent to the Chief Justice on May 15th, and there have been increasingly strong voices say this problem has needed attention for a long time. There is growing documentation that children and families are suffering as a result of Judicial Branch failure to act. None of this is new. There have been earlier, well done, state government reports that politely point out problems and call for program change. There are national reports that indicate that Maine is arguably one of the worst states in the country for its handling of this sort of children’s issue. Guardian ad litem problems are not just “noise” from “grassroots” troublemakers. There is substantial “noise” from within the government itself and yet more ”noise” from anyone with some familiarity with the program. The Guardian ad litem problems demand reform. At this point we seriously question whether the Judicial Branch by itself is capable of producing consumer-friendly, consumer-protective reform? Can it self-regulate in an unbiased manner that serves public interests?
The Judicial Branch has recently attempted to come up with a plan for a complaint process for public (and other) use in connection with Guardians ad litem malfunctioning. This lead to the establishment of an advisory committee, which was dominated by a super-majority of members of Maine’s “divorce industry”. It was a defiantly consumer unfriendly group that openly saw no problems with the Guardian ad litem program as it is, and no problems with the current opaque Guardian ad litem complaint process. A little update or refresher was all that was needed. It has resulted in committee endorsement of a very legalistic new complaint process to be lodged in the Overseers of the Bar. Its design is complex, time consuming and expensive for the public. It is less about Judicial Branch oversight of those GALs, who work for it, and more about the public having to do all of the “heavy lifting”. In effect, its message is: “You say we have a GAL problem, prove it.”
We oppose this new proposal. Strongly!
We ask that those in state government who must endorse or approve it, not do so. The “new” Judicial Branch Guardian ad litem complaint procedure is due to be sent to the Judiciary Committee of the legislature on or around October 15th. This proposal is not in the public interest; it essentially furthers the protective advantages of Guardians ad litem. In our view its legalistic language and procedures will be difficult for most “consumers” to understand. It will prove difficult for most people to use without the guidance (and expense) of a lawyer. Its procedures will drag out a complaint against a Guardian ad litem over months or years. And it offers a model in which the burden is on the “consumer who has to prove that he/she got a substandard “product,” rather than the oversight of an agency that wants to investigate its “product” in order to assure the public about the standards and vocational quality of this product. In brief, it seems geared towards settling a legal “fight”. It does nothing for consumer protection from a defective product. Its process is not consumer friendly.
It is also a problem with regard to routine $100.00 charges to all parties using a Guardian ad litem at the start of their process. It is, in effect, a “tax” or penalty for having a divorce with a Guardian ad litem, and it sends an unfriendly, almost punitive message to “consumers”. It forces “consumers” to pay for possible future Judicial Branch oversight actions, which may not happen. In this approach, it echoes the outspoken animus of one of the Judicial Branch committee members that are endorsing this proposed program: “Make ‘em pay!”
There is also the issue that the Judicial Branch has no experience in overseeing Guardians ad litem or in creating effective oversight programs. The proposal will require a brand new bureaucratic structure, and, for it to work, it will need training and education for all who are to implement this project. Guardians ad litem who will play a majority role in investigation of consumer complaints in this design, have no tradition or history of self regulation. It puts two tiers of GAL “foxes” in charge of “complaining hens”.
In our view the Judicial Branch is “reinventing the wheel” as they struggle to design and implement a brand new program, while there is already an effective oversight organization, Maine’s licensing boards in the administrative branch, that has a vast experience in doing this sort of thing. The licensing board can also do a program at less cost: $79,214.00 versus $120,000.00 for the Judicial Branch. The licensing boards have a strongly documented consumer protection ethos. On the other hand, the current Judicial Branch proposal “bullet proofs” Guardians ad litem from public complaints with a cumbersome legal approach that will string out the process until all of those involved die of old age!
As the only public member (dissenting) of the Judicial Branch Committee that is proposing this design, I feel that the Judicial Branch missed an opportunity for genuine consumer protective reform. In three, 2 hour meetings, with a committee of 20, largely composed of GALs and other members of the “divorce Industry” the product is exactly what one would expect: very “divorce industry” friendly. It challenges consumers with a “make ’em pay’ attitude that goes beyond mere costs.
In dealing with this proposed plan, will the Judiciary Committee of the Legislature also want to “make ’em pay” (in every sense)? Or will it go after other answers to the GAL oversight problem- answers that are long, long overdue? The Judicial Branch seems stuck in bondage to Guardians ad litem and others in the “divorce industry”.
Maine children and families deserve better.
Jerome A Collins, MD