July 8, 2013, MAINE- Governor Paul LePage, Maine, signed a law to hold the Guardian ad Litems representing children in custody disputes more professionally and financially accountable: http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/bills_126th/billtexts/SP029701.asp

LD 872, An Act To Improve the Quality of Guardian ad Litem Services for the Children and Families of Maine was sponsored by Sen. David Dutremble of Biddeford (D-District 4). Dutremble focused his bill on complaints over how GALS investigate cases, the influence a GAL has over final custody rights, and the fees a GAL can bill to individual families.

Sen Linda Valentino (D-District 5) has also been a strong supporter of Guardian ad Litem reform and made this bill a priority in the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, which she chairs. Valentino explains, “The judiciary committee unanimously approved this bill because it addresses the most criticized elements of reform, more transparent management and oversight of the complaint process. We made it our number one priority coming out of the judiciary committee, it is our signature bill.”

Maine GAL Alert, a grassroots advocacy group with more than 400 members has also been instrumental in lobbying for reform in Maine, and will continue to fight to improve the system. One of its leaders, Dr. Jerome Collins (retired psychiatrist, Kennebunk) became involved with Maine GAL Alert after his own negative experiences with the GAL appointed to his son’s divorce. Collins raised concerns about the mother because she was abusing alcohol and prescription drugs, and facing jail time. To avoid jail, the mother fled out of state with the grandchild. When Collins complained, and voiced concerns about the safety of his grandchild, the Guardian took the mother’s side and recommended that Collins only be allowed to visit his grandchild when supervised. Collins believes the GALS have too much power over people’s lives.

The law, LD 872, will go into effect in January 2015. The judiciary has until Oct. 1, 2017 to track data and create an oversight system to create a more transparent GAL complaint process. The bill also requires the new administration to cap the amount of fees a GAL can charge. The law also does not remove the quasi-judicial immunity for GALs. Maine GAL Alert was fighting for this reform that would have given a complaining party the ability to file a lawsuit against a GAL.

Funding to implement this law has been a challenge. But the law does afford funding for one full- and one part-time administrative position to gather data and supervise the GAL complaint process. Most GALs in Maine are mental health workers or attorneys. The new law also transfers oversight of Guardians to the Bar of Overseers, which already has a system in place to monitor complaints of lawyers in other situations.

Sen. Dutremble was motivated to seek changes in the law so it will better protect children because of his own experiences. Dutremble divorced in 2005, a GAL was appointed to his case, he says, (testifying on March 28th at a public hearing of the Maine State Judicial Committee), “Prior to my divorce I had never entered a courtroom as a defendant. I can assure you, the appointment of a guardian ad litem was one of the worst experiences of my life – and I am a full-time firefighter.”

The Guardian ad Litem told Dutremble that his work schedule as a firefighter is unhealthy for his children, and it is in their best interest to change his career. Dutremble and his ex-wife were also charged hefty fees.

Dutremble, “When I went through my divorce, I felt like the complaint system was broken and I didn’t have a lot of input with my guardian. She seemed to come in (and) take sides rather than really thinking in the best interest of my child.”

Reports of abuses in the GAL program have been widely reported and include: Charging excessive fees to parents, who often become financially burdened or even bankrupt. Guardians are allowed to charge fees for things like research, testifying in court, answering an e-mail or phone call and travel. Before this law was passed, GALs had the power to charge an hourly rate based at their discretion, now those fees will be capped.

Before this law was passed, there was very little professional oversight of the Guardian ad Litem program. Maine had no board or managing organization to oversee a GAL, and each one worked independently. A parent who wanted to file a complaint had to do so with the judge who was overseeing their case, the same judge who assigned the guardian. If the case was finalized, complaints were directed to the chief judge of that court. Parents frequent report that filing a complaint against a GAL often results in reprisal. This law will require increased accountability for GALs by implementing a variety of measures including: recording GAL court cases and activities for frequent review by an appropriate judicial branch management, annual GAL evaluations to be conducted by an independent party, and improved education and training for prospective GALs to include an internship “aimed at greater technical and experiential professionalism and reducing beginner’s mistakes of trial and error on consumers..”
PAK encourages you to read LD 872, this is valuable information that can be used to help improve GAL practices and procedures, and increase accountability:
http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/bills_126th/billtexts/SP029701.asp

Other frequently occurring complaints include GALs placing parents in supervised visitation or suspending visitation when there is no factual concern or evidence of abuse or endangerment. Often the abusive parent is given custody or visitation, at risk to the child’s safety and well being.

Dr. Jerome Collins of Maine GAL Alert says this bill is an important step to reform in the GAL program, “This is the first comprehensive review of the GAL program in 39 years and it puts Maine in a leadership position on this issue across the U.S., where GAL reform is a universal concern.

PAK  supports the work of those involved in raising awareness of the deficiencies, systematic failures and abuses of power in the Maine GAL program. We applaud your efforts to work for meaningful changes to better protect children and families, and improve the program as a whole. PAK encourages similar reforms as Dr. Collins said, “on this issue across the U.S., where GAL reform is a universal concern.” The GAL program is a valuable service that when, properly implemented has the potential to improve the lives of children and families. Let’s work together as concerned parents and involved professionals to make a difference in the lives of families, and in our community, to strengthen and improve the GAL program so that it truly represents the best interest of children it is intended to serve.

“Reform for Guardians under way” by Tracey Collins, 4/11/2013. Bickledford-Saco-OOB Courier: http://courier.mainelymediallc.com/news/2013-04-11/News/Reform_for_guardians_ad_litem_under_way.html

“Complains fuel bid to reform children’s representation in Maine disputes”, Scott Dolan, 5/8/2013. Portland Press Herald: http://www.pressherald.com/2013/05/08/complaints-fuel-bid-for-guardian-ad-litem-reform_2013-05-09/

“Governor signs guardian ad litem bill” by Tracey Collins, 7/18/2013. Bickledford-Saco-OOB Courier: http://courier.mainelymediallc.com/news/2013-07-18/News/Governor_signs_guardian_ad_litem_bill.html

Maine GAL Alert: http://megalalert.blogspot.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/MeGALalert/304805942890656

Requirements to be a Maine rostered GAL: http://www.courts.maine.gov/maine_courts/family/gal/requirements.html

Advertisements