Group seeks oversight, changes to Maine’s guardian ad litem program

Posted May 16, 2012, at 9:05 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A group seeking reform of the guardian ad litem program in the Maine court system on Tuesday sent a 17-page report outlining problems from the perspective of consumers to Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley.

A copy of the report, titled “The Bad Sport Report on GAL Reform” also was emailed to the Bangor Daily News. Paul D. Collins of Rockland, who claimed affiliation with a group called Maine Guardian ad litem Alert, along with others, authored the report.

“It came about as a result of having to deal with GALs,” Collins said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Guardians ad litem, or GALs, are appointed by judges “to represent the best interests of one or more children in legal proceedings for divorce, determination of parental rights and responsibilities, child protection and similar legal actions in Maine,” according to information on the court system’s website. GALs may be lawyers or mental health professionals.

When GALs are appointed to represent children in a divorce, the parties are responsible for paying their fees, which range from $120 and $200 per hour, according to Collins. GALs appointed in child protective cases are paid $50 per hour by the state, according to information on the court system’s website.

There are 328 registered guardians ad litem in Maine.

“We are enclosing a report on guardian ad litem reform for Maine’s guardian ad litem program,” Collins said in the email to Saufley. “It has been developed by Guardian ad litem Alert, a grassroots program that has come into existence late this winter, as a number of grassroots users of GALs in Maine began to compare notes on their unnerving experiences with GALs in divorce custody cases. Gradually, the realization dawned that something was radically wrong with the program.

“Though some officials saw our reaction as the result of [a] ‘bad outcome,’ with which we don’t disagree entirely, in all of our cases we felt that the problems we each experienced went beyond ‘outcome,’” he wrote. “It was the process and systemic issues in the courts and in the GAL program that disallowed any corrective action for GALs who didn’t follow statutes.”

Collins estimated Wednesday that his advocacy group includes “between 10 and 100 people” who have concerns about the guardian ad litem system. He said that his activism grew out of his personal experience when a guardian ad litem was appointed in his contested divorce in September 2010. He said he was billed more than $11,000 for the guardian ad litem’s services and felt she was not forthcoming about the reasons for the recommendations she made concerning the custody of his child.

“My experience is what started my pushing back and trying to facilitate some sort of change,” he said.

The report, which calls for an outside consultant to make recommendations for oversight, outlined 10 areas of concern, including: outside the courtroom, or ex parte, communication between judges and GALs; lax confidentiality standards for GALs; a lack of protection for consumers concerning GAL fees; the inability to sue GALs for malpractice because they have partial immunity; and the need for a board to oversee GALs similar to how the Board of Overseers of the Bar functions for lawyers or licensing boards for other professionals.

The judicial branch is aware of the concerns, Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the Maine court system, said Wednesday. A meeting has been scheduled for May 31 so the public may express concerns about the guardian ad litem program. The meeting date was set long before the report was sent to Saufley, she said.

“We look forward to hearing from the public and receiving other comments at that meeting, as well as before and after the meeting, and we will carefully consider every comment and communication in the weeks ahead,” she said in an email response to a request for comment on Collins’ report. “It would be premature for us to comment on a single communication.”

Lynch pointed out that the judiciary has advocated for a board to oversee the guardian ad litem program for several years. In 2009, the cost of implementing such a program was estimated to cost between $400,000 and $500,000. The guardian ad litem program now is supervised by the chief judge of the District Court.

The number of divorce cases in which GALs are appointed represents between 10 percent and 12 percent of the divorce cases filed each year, she said. In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2010, there were 12,216 family matters cases involving children filed in Maine’s courts, according to information provided by Lynch.

Of those, 3,407 were divorce cases with children, 2,110 were parental rights and/or paternity cases, and 6,330 postjudgment family matters that may or may not have involved children. GALs were appointed in 833 family matters cases, or 12 percent, according to the data.

The figures for fiscal year 2011 were: 11,874 family matter cases involving children filed; 3,417 divorces with children; 2,258 parental right and/or paternity cases; and 6,100 postjudgment family matter cases. GALs were appointed in 673, or 10 percent, of the cases.

While there is not an oversight group or licensing board for GALs, complaints concerning how they handle cases may be filed with the chief judge of the District Court, according to information on the court system’s website. Thirteen complaints were filed in fiscal year 2010 and 14 were filed in fiscal year 2011.

As a result of investigations by Chief District Court Judge Charles C. LaVerdiere, he issued a verbal warning to one guardian ad litem in 2010, according to Lynch. He issued a written warning to one guardian ad litem the next year.

In a March report to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee about GAL oversight, Saufley said GALs are “investigators and witnesses in judicial proceedings. Somewhat like a lawyer, they provide a voice for, and on behalf of, children in court proceedings, and like an expert witness, they investigate and may file a report and give testimony on the result of their investigation.”

They also can be cross-examined by the opposing parties, according to Lynch.

A judge who served nearly a decade as a District Court judge and recently co-authored a how-to book about divorce said Wednesday that the opinion of a guardian ad litem is helpful to judges deciding custody matters.

“They play a critical role in assuring the court has reliable and complete information about a child and family so a solid decision about a child and his or her best interests is made,” Superior Court Justice Andrew M. Horton of Portland said in a telephone interview.

Horton was a District Court judge from 1999 until 2007, when he was appointed to the Superior Court.

A public meeting to hear comments on the establishment of a cost-effective, professional oversight of the guardian ad litem program in the Maine court system will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 31, in the Feeney Conference Room on the first floor of the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.

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