AUGUSTA, Maine — People seeking reforms to the guardian ad litem system called the bill passed last month by the Legislature “a good beginning,” but at least one guardian ad litem said the legislation was unnecessary.
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.
Gov. Paul LePage is scheduled to sign LD 872 into law Monday with supporters in attendance, his spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday. LePage supported reforms to the GAL system, including caps on what GALs can charge, increased oversight, written standards of practice and requirements for continuing education, that were included in the bill that passed.
The bill goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015, and sunsets Oct. 1, 2017. According to the fiscal note, $90,000 is to be appropriated to the judiciary in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2015, to pay personnel to implement the changes.
GALs may be lawyers or mental health professionals. There are about 300 registered GALs in Maine, according to Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the Maine court system. GALs are supervised by the Family Division of the Judiciary but are paid by the parents who are divorcing.
Guardians ad litem are appointed in contested divorces involving children in which parents cannot agree on custody arrangements, or about 10 percent of the divorce cases filed each year, Lynch has said.
Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford, sponsored the legislation that impacts GALs appointed in divorce but not child protective or parental rights cases. Dutremble told that Judiciary Committee in March that he had experienced firsthand the problems the legislation sought to address.
“I can assure you that the appointment of a guardian ad litem was one of the worst experiences of my life, and I am a full-time firefighter,” he testified. “A GAL’s position is to remain neutral during their appointment to the child and to determine what is in the best interest of the child. This is where the real problem existed in my case. My guardian was anything but neutral and many guardians continue to remain anything but neutral to this date.”
Dr. Jerome Collins of Kennebunkport, who has worked with a group of Maine residents over the past two years to implement reforms, said the legislation was “a good beginning.”
“The theme that we have pushed is oversight and this bill implements that along with standardized billing,” he said.
In the past, GALs set their own fees, which ranged from $120 to $200 per hour, Collins said last year. There were no caps on those fees and parties sometimes were unprepared for high bills for GAL services.
The bill allows judges to cap fees at the beginning of a proceeding and allow parties to pay a flat fee rather than an hourly rate. The legislation also creates a statewide database that will contain public information that is now on paper in District Courts around the state. The information will include caseloads per GAL, fees charged per case, hours spent on each case and the time it takes each GAL to submit reports to judges.
Toby Hollander, president of the Maine Guardian Ad Litem Institute, predicted that the changes to the current system would exacerbate the problems its critics sought to solve. Hollander, of Portland, said that the legislation does not address the systemic problem of a two-tiered system that does not provide GALs for children whose divorcing parents cannot afford to pay them.
“For awhile there, I thought all these concerns might lead to a real look at the system and it might have been a good time to implement real change,” he said Wednesday. “Most of what is in the [new] statute already is the law or it had already been proposed by the judiciary in their rules revision. This was opportunity wasted.”
Reforms to the guardian ad litem system had been considered for years, according to a previously published report. In the 2006, the Legislature’s investigatory Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released an extensive report on the issue. It found that the system had insufficient oversight on any part of the process, including that judges in many cases cannot be confident that they are receiving complete and accurate information.
“Under these circumstances, judicial decision in child protection cases may not be optimal,” reads the OPEGA report. “Because of the way the court administers GAL services, there is little documented, standardized and accessible data to analyze. Therefore, while OPEGA can confidently state that compliance and performance inconsistencies are readily detectable, we cannot quantify the extent of compliance with mandated activities or the effectiveness of GALs themselves. Clearly, there are high-performing, dedicated and effective GALs. There are also too many reports of GALs with questionable performance, particularly regarding contacts with children and interactions with key individuals in children’s lives.”
Reforms recommended in that report would have cost more than $1 million to implement, which has been considered too expensive to put in place since the report was issued, Dutremble said Wednesday.
Hollander said that a solution might be to have divorcing parents who could afford it pay $25 per child into a fund that could be used to pay for GALs for poor parents. He said that creating a separate commission similar to the Indigent Legal Defense Commission that oversees the attorneys appointed to represent defendants facing jail time who can’t afford an attorney and to represent parents in child protective cases is a possible solution.
While the judiciary did not support every provision in the final bill, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley in May praised the Judiciary Committee’s work.
“We admire the hard work of the Judiciary Committee in writing a bill that has received the unanimous, bipartisan endorsement of the committee,” she said in an email as the bill was being completed. “The bill will provide a more robust disciplinary and complaint process. It better defines the role of the Guardian ad Litem, and it endorses the changes made earlier this year by the court, to make the billing more transparent and predictable.”
The Board of Overseers of the Bar, which handles complaints against attorneys, will handle complaints against GALs, Lynch said Wednesday.
Dutremble and Collins said the sunset provision will allow the Legislature in three years to evaluate how the reforms are working.