New changes in Connecticut’s Guardian ad Litem program, improving family court for families…

The Guardian ad Litem system in Connecticut has faced public reprise for its lack of accountability, abuses of power, and the high fees incurred by Guardians. Many parents reported being financially destitute and even bankrupted by excessive fees because in the former system in CT, Guardians are billed by the hour with no cap on fees. The parents are billed directly for the fees, and the Judges serve as the collection agency and can throw a parent in jail if unable to pay.

“We have been harmed and taken advantage of by attorneys for minor children and guardian ad litems who enjoy immunity, are deemed infallible, and who have played God, judge and jury with our families and our children, while trampling our basic rights to due process, our civil rights, and our rights to be parents for our children,” the Connecticut Coalition for Family Court Reform said in public hearing testimony in March 2014. (The CT Mirror)

Counter arguments state that conflicts between parents during custody/divorce disputes create major hurdles to overcome, and that parents need increased opportunities for education and resources to settle disputes outside of court. Some of the Connecticut state task force report and recommendations includes recommendations for parents involved in divorce/custody disputes. Other arguments state the family court system does need some change but Guardians are being unfairly targeted as the cause of the problems.

“We’ve got to start talking about collaboration. Nobody’s in disagreement here — the system needs some change.”says Elizabeth Thayer, who was a member on the task force.

Concerned parents have gathered to sign petitions urging reform, to raise public complaints and urge the legislators to act. The Legislators have heard the complaints and worked diligently to change aspects of the current Guardian ad Litem system in CT.

Here is a brief overview of the new laws to reform the Connecticut GAL system:

January 31, 2014: A Connecticut state task forces issues a report and recommendations on the care and custody of children involved in legal disputes. The task forced studied the roles and responsibility of Guardian ad Litems involved in custody disputes, studied issues related to the ability of parents to co-parent after divorce/separation and what to do about noncompliance (CG46b-56) and whether the state should adopt a presumption of shared custody as being in the best interest of children. The task force held 13 meetings, including a 15 hour public meeting during the 4 month course of developing this report.
Read the report here: http://www.cga.ct.gov/jud/ldcc/Docs/TF%20to%20Study%20Legal%20Disputes%20Involving%20the%20Care%20&%20Custody%20of%20Minor%20Children%20Report%20&%20Recommendations.pdf

April 2014: Connecticut passes law to reform Guardian ad Litem system, legislation passed unanimously in the House and Senate, “The bill seeks to address the broken divorce court system,” said Rep. Minnie Gonzalez (D-Hartford).

The new law requires the courts to give families a choice of 15 lawyers to serve as Guardians; this gives parents more say in the selection of a Guardian. The law also instructs judges to consider issues like financial circumstances, language barriers, transportation and how close a Guardian’s office is to the residence of each parent in the selection. There are an estimated 1,000 Guardians registered in Connecticut, they are not required to be an attorney but many are.

May 8, 2014 – this law goes into effect October 1, 2014: Bill 494 now Public Act No. 14-3 concerning Guardians Ad Litem (“GAL”) and Attorneys for Minor Children (“AMC”): http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/TOB/S/2014SB-00494-R00-SB.htm

This bill includes:
(Sec. 1) When a Guardian is to be appointed, the Court will provide the parents with a list of 5 prospective Guardians to choose from. If the parents cannot agree on a Guardian, the Court will decide. If the parents mutually agree on a Guardian that is not on the list, they can submit a written agreement to the Court to appoint that person.
(Sec. 1c) After the appointment of a Guardian, the Court will enter an order that includes the following information: the specific duties of the Guardian, the date which the appointment of the Guardian is to expire (can be extended with good cause), the deadline for reports or work to be turned in, the fee schedule for services, the retainer, the hourly rate to be charged, the appointment of fees to be paid by each party, and a schedule for court review of the work done by the Guardian and the fees charged. Periodic review to occur not less than 6 months from the date of appointment unless there is a written agreement from both parties, and filed with the court.
(Sec 2) The Court may appoint counsel for the child at any time if it is in the best interest of the child. Counsel shall be related to issues if care, custody, support, visitation and education of a minor child.
(Sec 3) Allows for a third party to intervene by motion, and counsel to be appointed for the child if appropriate. The court will be guided by the best interest factors, and the wishes of the child (if appropriate) in determining this motion.
(Sec 4) The Judicial Branch will outline procedures for those seeking removal of a Guardian or counsel for a child. Prior to hearing the motion, the Court may refer parties to mediation. If the allegations cannot be resolved, a hearing will be held. The presiding judge will appoint the judge who is assigned to hear the motion.
(Sec 5) A court can order parents to pay fees related to court services appointed for a child, however those fees cannot be court ordered to be paid from a child’s college savings fund. If a child is receiving public assistance, their fees may be paid through the public defender program.
(Sec 5) If warranted, a parent may given a sliding-scale fee to pay for the services of a Guardian. The Judicial Branch will develop and implement the sliding scale system.
(Sec 6) The Judicial Branch will create and publicize a document to give information to the public about the roles, responsibilities and general statutes regulating Guardians

June 2014: Gov. Dannel Malloy signed Public Act 14-3. an Act Concerning Guardian ad Litems and Public Attorneys for Minor Children in Family Relations Matters into law. http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/act/pa/pdf/2014PA-00003-R00SB-00494-PA.pdf

Note: Public Act 14-3 expands on SB 484 by outlining the 16 Best Interest factors used when determining a child custody/visitation motion. It also establishes a professional code of conduct for a Guardian or counsel for a minor. You will find these changes listed in the Public Act, not in the Bill.

The above list from SB 494 and Public Act 14-3 is not meant to be all-inclusive and only reflects some of general areas of reform, please read the law in its entirety for complete information:

SB 494: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/TOB/S/2014SB-00494-R00-SB.htm

Public Act 14-3: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/act/pa/pdf/2014PA-00003-R00SB-00494-PA.pdf

Critics believe the new laws do not go far enough to reform the GAL system because it does not offer a system to investigate and take disciplinary action against a Guardian who is breaking the law or violating the codes of conduct.

This is a serious issue, as demonstrated in a comment Peter Szymonik made in a petition to the Judiciary, Connecticut Guardian ad Litem Reform, “Rather than working to resolve problems, the Court has instead became a source of further harm and abuse due to the complete lack of oversight of any kind over the GAL system.”

Further, parents are often punished or retaliated against for voicing complaints against Guardians, judges and other judicial officers. Parents deserve protection and a fair system to file complaints; with disbarment for attorneys and other disciplinary measures for those who violate the laws or the codes of conduct. These are valid arguments, and I hope they will be resolved with continued efforts to improve the system.

Connecticut, assisted by the tears and courageous work of concerned parents, family members and advocacy groups, has taken strides towards reforming the Guardian ad Litem system. This is an important step in protecting the rights and welfare of parents and children…and an encouragement for other states to consider, and implement reform. I hope that Connecticut, and other states, will continue to work to make the system more fair, transparent and responsive to all parents, and families, involved in family court and in the Guardian ad Litem program.

 

 

Other ideas for GAL reform:

ACCOUNTABILITY
*Create an independent commission to evaluate and approve the appointment of a GAL. GALs are then subject to appointment and if necessary, removal—a similar process as used by judicial selection. Norman Pattis: http://www.pattisblog.com/index.php?article=Time_for_GAL_Reform_in_Connecticut_6556

*Improved training, for Guardians to include improved education and skill building.

*Continued enhancement of systems and coordination within the Judicial branch.

*Improved accountability with enforced, regulation and monitored disciplinary action for those Guardians who step outside of the statutes regulating them.

*Parties should be allowed to obtain discovery from a Guardian like any other witness, including the ability to receive a copy of their own file and information created and gathered by the Guardian (redacting information as needed for privacy or for the protection of a victim of domestic violence).

FEES/BILLING

*Standardized billing procedures for Guardians

*Specify rates and fees for a Guardian, with a cap on fees. Any additional fees incurred above the cap must be approved by a judge. If both parents are indigent, the state shall bear the costs. (The CT Task force capped fees at $10,000).

Sources:

Connecticut Family Court Reform: http://www.ctfamilycourt.com/

Connecticut Guardian ad Litem Reform (Founded by Peter Szymonik): http://szymonik.wix.com/ct-galreform#!about_us/csgz

“General Assembly unanimously passes family-court reform” by Mark Pazniokas, The CT Mirror, 4/25/2014: http://ctmirror.org/general-assembly-passes-family-court-reforms/

Petitioning the State of Connecticut Judiciary Committee, “Reform the State’s Corrupt and Broken Guardian ad Litem System” by Peter Szymonik: https://www.change.org/p/state-of-connecticut-judiciary-committee-reform-the-state-s-corrupt-and-broken-guardian-ad-litem-system

Petition to Reform Connecticut’s Broken Family Court and Guardian ad Litem System, presented to the State of Connecticut, Judiciary Committee, March 2014 (includes 700 electronic signatures and comments from signers): http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/JUDdata/Tmy/2014SB-00494-R000331-The%20Connecticut%20Coalition%20for%20Family%20Court%20Reform-TMY.PDF

Task Force Public Hearing (Connecticut Family Court Reform): http://www.ctfamilycourt.com/connecticut-public-hearing-custody-dispute-task-force-2014-01-09.php

Testimony of Michael Nowacki to the Connecticut Task Force: http://youtu.be/q5ZAzJddBsM

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