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Critics worry about lack of oversight of court-appointed child advocates in Maine, urge reform

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley gestures during her annual State of the Judiciary address, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, at the State House in Augusta.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — People seeking reforms to the guardian ad litem program in the state court system expressed their concerns Thursday in a meeting with Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Many of the 50 or so people who attended the meeting had experience with the program during their divorce proceedings. Others at the event, which was structured like a hearing before a legislative committee, were lawyers who work as guardians ad litem.

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. Guardians ad litem may be lawyers or mental health professionals.

Unlike with attorneys, judges, psychologists and other professionals, there is not a board to oversee their conduct. The guardian ad litem program now is supervised by the chief judge of the District Court.

There are about 320 registered guardians ad litem in Maine, Saufley said Thursday.

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 at between $400,000 and $500,000.

Saufley was asked earlier this year by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee to come back in 2013 with a plan to implement a better way to resolve complaints about guardians ad litem.

Dr. Jerome Collins of Kennebunkport urged Saufley to change the standard used to determine custody from the child’s best interest to whether a child is safe.

“There are no underlying clear criteria that might define the concept,” he said Thursday. “We feel that ‘Is the child safe?’ is a better standard for the courts. It can be defined more easily, and there is apt to be greater consensus about baseline issues for child safety. Health, nutrition, home safety, evidence of parental mental illness, criminal activities, drug or alcohol issues can all be evaluated more clearly and lend themselves to criteria for custody.”

Collins, a retired psychiatrist, began networking with his son, Paul Collins of Rockland, after the guardian ad litem in his son’s divorce made recommendations both men felt were out of line. The process for appealing those decisions was cumbersome, time-consuming and costly, both men have said.

Diane Loranger of Saco said she is one of more than 15,000 grandparents in the state raising grandchildren. She urged improved training for guardians ad litem in child development, family systems, mental health and substance abuse. She also suggested that a system of supervision and mentoring be implemented along with licensing requirements.

In addition, she urged that “fee ceilings” be set “because there are increasingly more grandparents on fixed incomes raising grandchildren. They should not have to choose between their grandchildren and maintaining a roof over their heads.”

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

Steven Carey of Cumberland, an attorney who is returning to guardian ad litem work after working for the Indigent Legal Defense Commission, told Saufley that he did not think the system was broken.

“I am one of the few here today who is satisfied with the process,” he said. “I strongly believe that ‘in the best interest of the child’ is the proper standard which is used in other states.”

The number of cases that were the focus of Thursday’s meeting — contested divorce cases in which a guardian ad litem is appointed — represents less than 10 percent of the divorce cases filed each year, Saufley said. In 2010 there were 11,847 family matters cases involving children filed in Maine’s courts, according to information provided by Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the court system.

Of those, 3,407 were divorce cases with children, 2,110 were parental rights and/or paternity cases, and 6,330 were postjudgment family matters that may or may not have involved children. Guardians ad litem were appointed in 833 family matters cases, or 7 percent, according to the data.

The figures for 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. Guardians ad litem were appointed in 673, or 6 percent, of the cases.

The number of complaints about guardians ad litem filed each year is small, according to Lynch. Thirteen complaints were filed in 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.

People need to know how to take immediate action when they feel a guardian ad litem is not acting in a child’s best interest or behaving unethically, Lee Feldman of Auburn said after the meeting. He said a motion to remove a guardian ad litem should be similar to the motion a criminal defendant is allowed to file when he or she is unhappy with the representation being provided by a court-appointed attorney.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, percentages of cases involving guardians ad litem and the number of cases in 2010 were erroneous because of incorrect information provided by the court system.

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