“How are you, what terrors are you going through? Hiding it from the Abuser, the One you ran from, and are now imprisoned in his home..”

A YouTube video with absolutely no sound leaves an impression even more powerful than the mighty roar of a lion… “Silent Child” by Family Court Abuse is a narrative/poem about the pain, grief and fear a parent experiences after their child has been placed in the custody of an abuser by an unjust order of the family court.  As a result of the ruling, the parent has been forced out of the life of their child, and can only speak through the stark black and white images of this silent video. 

The video description reads: “This is about Family Court decisions to seperate children and mothers who are victims of domestic abuse/violence, giving custody to an abusive father, how they are broken and silenced by courtroom tactics, and the painful silent space left in the home of the child and heart of the mother (and child). The lack of training in domestic abuse for Judges and Cafcass is a strong influence on decisions to force children into damaging and traumatic situations with an abuser.

What is portrayed in “Silent Child” is REAL and happening to parents in the United States, U.K. and all over the world…. family courts are awarding custody to abusive or unfit parents at alarming rates, and punishing the parent who is trying to protect the child from harm.

Studies have been conducted on the intersection of family court and domestic violence and revealed a consistent pattern in the court’s failure to protect children from harm by granting custody and/or unsupervised visitation with abusive parents:

** The Committee for Justice for Women studied custody awards in Orange County, North Carolina over a five year period between 1983 and 1987. They reported that: “…in all contested custody cases, 84% of the fathers in the study were granted sole or mandated joint custody. In all cases where sole custody was awarded, fathers were awarded custody in 79% of the cases. In 26% of the cases fathers were either proven or alleged to have physically and sexually abused their children.” Are “Good Enough” Parents Losing Custody to Abusive Ex-Partners? (Leadership Council)

** “Only 10% of children alleging incest are adequately protected from their identified perpetrators by family courts through long-term supervised visitation orders or no-contact orders. The remaining 90% of children disclosing abuse receive no protection, with 70% continuing in shared custody and visitation arrangements without any supervision, and 20% being placed in the custody of the parent they accused of the sexual abuse, and losing unsupervised or all contact with the parent who sought to protect them.” FACT SHEET CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE IN CUSTODY DISPUTES (Child Abuse Solutions, Inc.)

** “… A history of violence does not stop batterers from obtaining custody. In fact, a history of abuse seems to increase the likelihood that the batterer will seek custody…In one recent study in Massachusetts, fifteen of the forty fathers (approximately 38 percent) who sought custody received sole or joint custody of the children, despite the fact that each and every one of these men were reportLosed to have abused both the mother and the child/children prior to separation and continued to do so after separation..” “One More Battleground: Domestic Violence, Child Custody, and the Batterers’ Relentless Pursuit of their Victims Through the Courts” by Mary Przekop

** “My own survey of the case law in 2001 identified 38 appellate state court decisions concerning custody and domestic violence. The survey found that 36 of the 38 trial courts had awarded joint or sole custody to alleged and adjudicated batterers. Two-thirds of these decisions were reversed on appeal. –  Joan S. Meier, Esq., Domestic Violence, Child Custody, and Child Protection: RATES AT WHICH ACCUSED AND ADJUDICATED BATTERERS RECEIVE SOLE OR JOINT CUSTODY (Compiled by Joan S. Meier, Esq).

The tragic result of family court failures is that children are being abused and have absolutely no avenue for help or legal protection because the abuser is being protected by the legal system (not the child), and the child has become silenced. As parents and professionals we have a responsibility to protect our children.. and when systems fail, it is our responsibility to fight for justice so these silenced children can finally have a voice. 

 

 

 

Judge Matthew Myers (Wikipedia Commons)

Don’t breastfeed any more. Seriously don’t. It’s not in the best interests of the child…I don’t care if it makes the front page and it probably will.” Federal Circuit Judge Matthew Myers banning a mother from breastfeeding during an interim hearing on June 3-5, 2015. Judge Myers ruled that because the mother has a tattoo she poses a health risk when breastfeeding her child.

June 2015, New South Wales, Australia – “Judges must not mistake their own views for being facts” Australian Family Court Justice Murray Aldridge made this strong statement after an appellate court overturned a ruling from a Federal judge who issued a court order prohibiting a mother from breastfeeding her 11 month old son. There was no motion before the court to restrain the mother from breastfeeding when the ruling was made. The order was unanimously thrown out on appeal because the Federal judge based his decision entirely on his own opinion.

The case came to court after the child’s father, known as, Mr. Macek, refused to return the child at the end of his parenting time, and the mother fought for return of the child.

Judge Matthew Myers heard the case in Federal Circuit Court and set aside issues raised to ban the mother, known as, Ms. Jackson from breastfeeding because she recently had a tattoo placed on her finger and another on her toe. Judge Myers said the tattoo put the baby at risk of contracting HIV, and based his ruling on articles he read on the internet – which is bias. The father, Mr. Macek, was also given increased parenting time.

Ms. Jackson filed an urgent appeal heard by a full bench of the Family Court in Sydney. The Family Court overturned the ruling of Judge Myers because they felt there was no evidence to support that Ms. Jackson presented a risk to the baby should she continue to breastfeed.

Another questionable aspect of this case is that the father Mr. Macek has a domestic violence order issued against him, but is allowed to have extensive visits with the child, unsupervised. Mr. Macek also pleaded guilty to assaulting Ms. Jackson. The original order granted the father to spend 6 hours a day, 4 days per week, with the child. In coming to its determination, the Family Court (who heard the appeal) determined Judge Meyers erred by failing to consider s 60CC of the Family Law Act when making orders about the time the child is to spend with the father and specifically,”The orders provide for an 11 month old child to spend six hours with his father every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Quite simply, how such an arrangement is in the best interests of an 11 month old baby is beyond me. Such an arrangement is of its very nature unsettling to the child and likely to lead to instability. It requires a constant change of households and, in this case, would require eight changeovers per week between parents who accuse each other of violence and drug taking and have difficulties with the other members of each other’s family. Such orders are likely to be productive of conflict.” The Family Court temporarily changed parenting time with father to 2 days per week for five hours per day pending the conclusion of another hearing.

Judge Myers’ focus on breastfeeding as being the sole concern about the safety of the child is misplaced.

That Mr. Macek, refused to return the child after his parenting time, should be considered non-custodial kidnapping and that act alone, is harmful to the child.  The child has primarily been cared for by the mother, Ms. Jackson, since birth. According to court records, “It was common ground that the father had only seen the child on four occasions since separation. To put this in context, it is common ground that prior to separation the mother was primarily responsible for the care of the child and the father was involved to the extent that his full time employment permitted. Of particular relevance to the challenge to his Honour’s order concerning the child’s time with the father is the fact that prior to separation the longest period of time the child spent in the father’s sole care was one hour.

That combined with the Mr. Macek’s history of domestic violence, creates a real risk of harm for this child. Yet, the response of Judge Myers to ignore these issues and award Mr. Macek with additional parenting time; makes no sense. The family court should recognize the need for sensitivity, and not exacerbate an already tense situation by issuing a court order that unfairly punishes one parent and ignores the real safety risks.

— EJ Perth, 2015

Sources:

“Australian Court Orders Mother to Stop Breastfeeding After She Had Tattoos” by Jonathon Pearlman, The Telegraph, 6/18/2015:

“Breastfeeding Ban on Tattooed Mother Overturned by Family Court” by ABC News, 6/19/2015:

“Mother asks court to let her breastfeed her son after ban by judge for getting tattoos” by Louise Hall, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6/18/2015:

Jackson & Macek [2015] FamCAFC 114 (19 June 2015) – Family Court of Australia

(Jan 22, 2015, North Dakota) In a rare and extraordinary move, the North Dakota Supreme Court removed district court judge, Cynthia Feland, from a child custody case after it was determined her custody order was not in the best interest of the child, and that she ignored significant evidence of domestic violence.

In their Jan. 22, decision, the justices, ordered that Judge Cynthia Feland be removed from the custody and child support case of Nicholas Law and Danielle Whittet. The unanimous opinion signed by Justice Daniel Crothers read, in part, “A change of judge is ordered upon remand because of Judge Feland’s inability or unwillingness to follow our mandate, and out of concern for the tumult from and cost of litigation.”

Nicholas Law and Danielle Whittet began dating in 2010, they were never married. Ms. Whittet also has two older children from a previous relationship. In 2011 Ms. Whittet gave birth to their child. Mr. Law was proven to be the father through a DNA test.

In July 2012, Mr. Law filed a motion for custody and requested primary custody of the child. Mr. Law requested primary custody citing the Best Interest standards favored him, and a number of factors endangered the child if put in the care of Ms. Whittet.

Following a trial, Judge Feland granted joint custody to the couple and “ordered the parties equal residential responsibility for the child, each having the child on alternating weeks with exchanges taking place on Sunday”. (I will go into the evidence and arguments cited at trial, further in this article).

After the trial, in Nov 2012, Ms. Whittet plead guilty to disorderly conduct, assault and escape. The assault charge was later dismissed. The incident happened in September 2012. At 3 am, officers were dispatched to Ms. Whittet’s home because she was “very intoxicated” and was outside yelling and screaming at her boyfriend. When Ms. Whittet refused to stop screaming, the officers gave her the choice of going into detox or staying with a friend or family member. Ms. Whittet chose to go to her mother’s home for the night, where her 3 children were staying. At 4:30 am, officers were dispatched to the mother’s home. Ms. Whittet was screaming, throwing objects around the house, and had woken the children, who were witnessed to be crying. The screaming was so loud that a neighbor came to the home to investigate. The mother suffered an injury to her arm after Ms. Whittet pushed her against a bed. The mother requested that the officers take Ms. Whittet, and she was arrested.

Mr. Law then filed a motion based on the new evidence of the Sept. 2012 incident and conviction, requesting primary custody. Judge Feland denied Mr. Law’s motion and instead entered a permanent joint custody judgment.

Mr. Law appealed Judge Feland’s custody order to the Supreme Court, and won (Law v. Whittet, 2014 ND 69, 844 N.W.2d 885, filed 4/7/2014). The Supreme Court found that Judge Feland, “simply ignored the significant evidence that was favorable to Law and detrimental to Whittet” and “The district court in this case, without explanation, failed to acknowledge or address evidence which clearly indicated several of the best interest factors favored Law.”

The Supreme Court made its decision based on factors NOT considered in Judge Feland’s custody order, that were entered into evidence. Evidence included the following: Ms. Whittet lived in 10 different residences in the past 4 years, and was living with various men, at different times, who provided financial support. One of these men had physically abused Ms. Whittet’s older child. Ms. Whittet did not have stable employment.Ms. Whittet comes from a dysfunctional family background, and was found to have gotten into physical fights with her mother on several occasions; many of these fights happened in front of the children. In contrast, Mr. Law was found to have a stable job, owns his own home, and is soon to be married. Mr. Law was also has a supportive family and his parents share a close relationship with the child.

The Supreme Court struggled to understand how Judge Feland found these parents to provide an equal quality of care to the child, and struggled to understand how Judge Feland dismissed the Best Interest factors, “We are at a loss to understand or explain the court’s finding. On the basis of this record, Law has demonstrated a markedly stable home life and an extended family which has had a demonstrably positive impact on the child. Whittet’s home environment, however, demonstrates remarkable instability, averaging a move every few months, and has subjected the child to constant change and inconsistency. In addition, Whittet’s home environment subjected the child to a live-in boyfriend who physically assaulted one of Whittet’s other children, and her extended family life subjected the child to a physical altercation between Whittet and her mother requiring intervention by law enforcement and Whittet’s arrest. On the basis of the entire record, we conclude the district court’s finding that factor (d) was equal was clearly erroneous, and factor (d) favored Law.”

The Supreme Court was also troubled that Judge Feland ignored domestic violence happening in Ms. Whittet’s family, meaning the ongoing fights with her mother that the children were a witness to. (The record does not show, but evidence suggests, the children may have witnessed fights between the mother and her various live-in boyfriends).

Judge Feland found that neither party engaged in domestic violence and ignored Ms. Whittet’s troubled history with her mother. The Supreme Court argued that domestic violence statutes (N.D.C.C. § 14-09-06.2) require the Court to consider violence on a family or household member and that “the legislature intended the factor to apply whenever violence is directed at any member of the household or family, and domestic violence is not confined to instances in which the child or one of the parties is the direct victim of the violence.” Further, “A trial court cannot simply ignore evidence of family abuse, but must make specific findings on evidence of domestic violence in making its decision on primary residential responsibility.” Which means that even if the statute did not apply, Judge Feland should have considered the violent altercations between Ms. Whittet and her mother when making a custody determination. Also supporting this argument, is that the children were being cared for by their maternal grandmother at different times, and Ms. Feland’s acts of violence directly impacted the well-being of the children. Clearly, the children were put in the middle of these disputes, and had suffered emotional distress–and were at risk for real physical harm. (Just my thoughts–if the mother has this chaotic of a lifestyle, she should be required to sober up, and demonstrate stability before having any extended visitation with the child. This is clearly a case where supervise visitation is warranted).

The Supreme Court found that Judge Feland’s ruling was “clearly erroneous” and remanded with instructions that Ms. Law be “given primary residential responsibility of the minor child and to consider limited parenting time for Whittet”. The safety of the child was a major factor in the ruling, the Supreme Court writes, “In determining a parenting time schedule for Whittet, the court must bear in mind the presumption that any domestic violence, even if not directed at the child, negatively affects the best interests of the child. Accordingly, the court should consider limited parenting time for Whittet.”

Instead, Judge Feland drafted an order that required Mr. Law to pay child support, and gave Ms. Whittet parenting time with the child every other week. “Primary custody” means one parent has custody of the child more than 50% of the time. Further, Judge Feland issued an award of child support, with Mr. Law paying the majority of support, which did not support the fact that he has been awarded primary custody. The Supreme Court found that, “The child support was not calculated in proper consideration of the primary residential responsibility award to Law. The district court did not carry out the terms of this Court’s mandate.” In essence, Judge Feland’s custody order did not truly reflect primary custody, and continued to put the child at risk.

Mr. Law then went back to the Supreme Court, seeking relief because Judge Feland had not followed the ruling (Law v. Whittet, No. 20140268, filed 1/22/2015). The Supreme Court sided with Mr. Law, and ordered the removal of Judge Feland from the case, “A district court amended judgment will be reversed and remanded for failure to follow the mandate of the Supreme Court. A change of judge may be ordered on remand when a judge is unable or unwilling to follow the mandate of the Supreme Court.”

Ms. Whittet has two older children, it has not been made public if those children remain in her care.

About Judge Feland: Cynthia Feland is a judge for the North Dakota South Central Judicial District seat 5. Her current term will end on January 1, 2017. Prior to her election to the court in 2010, Judge Feland was an assistant state’s attorney for Burleigh County for 11 years. She was the Grant County State’s Attorney from 1992-1998, also worked in private legal practice in Mandan.

Prior Misconduct: November 2011- The disciplinary board of the Supreme Court investigated Judge. Feland and determined misconduct for an incident that happened when she was as an assistant state’s attorney. Judge Feland did not reveal a document during the prosecution of the director of the North Dakota’s Workforce Safety and Insurance agency, Sandy Blunt, who was accused of misspending funds. Blunt was convicted of a felony which was upheld by the North Dakota Supreme Court. Blunt says that Judge Feland withholding the document contributed to his conviction.

The North Dakota Supreme Court ordered that Judge Feland be admonished and that pay half of the expenses of the disciplinary investigation (about $5.600). Judge Feland denies any wrongdoing.

Sources: Law v. Whittet, North Dakota Supreme Court Opinions, No. 20140268, 1/22/2015 : http://www.ndcourts.gov/court/opinions/20140268.htm

Law v. Whittet, North Dakota Supreme Court Opinions, No. 20130241, 4/7/2014 : http://www.ndcourts.gov/court/opinions/20130241.htm

Judgepedia: Cynthia Feland: http://judgepedia.org/Cynthia_Feland

“N.D. Supreme Court removes judge from custody case” by Andrew Sheeler, 2/3/2015, The Bismark Tribune: http://bismarcktribune.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/n-d-supreme-court-removes-judge-from-custody-case/article_1e441522-d7d4-503c-a399-fa1adf646c54.html

2014-Ongoing, Augusta, Georgia: WFXG Fox 54 has been investigating shocking allegations of abuses of power and misconduct in Columbia County family court including allegations of sexual harassment by Guardian ad Litem, Doug Nelson, and that this GAL was protected by several judges who were aware of the complaints.

For more history of the investigation, stories, videos, and updates please visit WFXG Fox 54’s online thread about Courts and Custody Battles: http://www.wfxg.com/category/283560/fox-54-investigates-courts-and-custody-battles

An brief rundown on what has been reported…

April 30, 2014: Several women from the Central Savannah River Area make allegations of sexual harassment against Guardian ad Litem and Columbia County magistrate judge, Doug Nelson. These women also report that refusing the sexual advances of Nelson led to him writing negative recommendations to the Court that ultimately resulted in these mothers losing custody of their children.

In one case reported to WFXG, a mother who is a military veteran of the US Army, was requested by Doug Nelson, the GAL on her case in 2011, to meet at an Augusta motel. While in the parking lot, Nelson allegedly began to fondle this mother, rubbing her arms, back and buttocks. Nelson eventually ended contact with the mother but things grew much worse when Nelson accused the mother of “parental alienation” which led to the mother losing custody.

Doug Nelson is also accused of failing to perform the duties of a GAL – he allegedly failed to interview the children involved. Nelson is also accused of bias, and that he interviewed 6 people in support of the father, and no collateral contacts for the mother. Nelson also expressed support of the father and that he has a “touching” hobby of writing books about social issues. In comparison, the mother got two short sentences written about her in the recommendation.

The mother reports before she lost custody, she shared a very close relationship with her child, that they did everything together. The mother made a report to the Richmond County sheriff’s office, who is investigating. Nelson’s response to this allegation is that “it didn’t happen”.

Other women have come forward with allegations that Doug Nelson asked inappropriate personal questions, made sexual advances and left inappropriate text messages and messages, also sexual in nature. One mother took screen shots of the text messages, “Sent from a phone number we (WXFG) confirmed through magistrate court offices belonging to Nelson, the messages we read say he “wanted to touch” and also discussed the mom’s attire. When she told him what she would be wearing to a hearing, Nelson responded, “giddy up – can’t wait to see.” This mother raised complaints about Nelson to Judge Daniel Craig.

In 2012, another woman filed a complaint with the Columbia Sheriff’s office that Nelson put his body next to hers, and stroked her arm and back. As of yet, there is no indication the women involved in these two separate incidents have had any contact with each other…and yet their stories are similar.

When WFXG contacted Nelson again, to comment on these allegations, Nelson reportedly said the mothers are just lashing out at him because they are angry the custody arrangements did not go the way they wanted. Nelson says the women are lashing out, and just want to get back at him. He also says, that he does not remember the details of all of his cases.

“SPECIAL REPORT: Women make accusations against former guardian ad litem” by Nick Lulli. WFXG, 4/30/2014: http://www.wfxg.com/story/25396656/women-make-accusations-against-former-guardian-ad-litem

May 1, 2014: Magistrate Doug Nelson (Columbia County) resigns one day after several women came forward with allegations of misconduct and sexual harassment. Nelson continues to state that none of the allegations are true.

“Doug Nelson resigns as magistrate judge” by Nick Lulli. WFXG, 5/01/2014: http://www.wfxg.com/story/25405867/doug-nelson-resigns-as-magistrate-judge

May 21, 2014: Radio reporter investigating problems within the guardian ad litem system threatened with jail by powerful judge.

Scott Nelson, reporter, has personally experienced a difficult family court case and so began to investigate the guardian ad litem system. Hudson uncovered the same evidence as WXFG – that by former guardian and magistrate judge Doug Nelson was accused of inappropriate behavior, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

When a confidential source allowed Nelson to listen in to a meeting of GALs, Judge David Roper retaliated against him after learning about Nelson’s investigation. Hudson said he was threatened with imprisonment and was so fearful that he dropped the story.

In May 2014, after news of the scandal became public, Scott Nelson made a report to the Columbia County Sheriff’s investigators.

Scott Hudson also says Judge Daniel Craig knew about the threats, because an associate of his emailed superior court judge Daniel Craig with concerns. In an e-mail, Judge Craig acknowledges that Roper did indeed threaten Hudson with arrest. Scott Hudson said this ordeal has hurt his family and his career.

“SPECIAL REPORT: Radio reporter says judge scared him off from covering allegations against Doug Nelson” by Nick Lulli. WFXG, 5/21/2014: http://www.wfxg.com/story/25583699/radio-reporter-says-judge-scared-him-off-from-covering-allegations

Dec. 4, 2014: The Judicial Qualifications Committee is investigating what superior court judge Daniel Craig may have know about complaints against former magistrate and GAL Doug Nelson. The JQC annual report for 2013, said that 75% of complaints against Georgia judges were rejected. The JQC now says that they are investigating these cases.

WFXG Fox 54 began an investigation into what judge know about complaints filed against GALs in Columbia County. This is an important question because in Georgia, the judges appoint and oversee the Guardians.

Judge Daniel Craig has presided over several cases where mothers have complained against Doug Nelson for inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment. While Judge Craig says he did not know about the complaints, evidence suggests that he was aware of the complaints, and continued to follow the recommendations of Nelson long after the first complaint was raised.

Other judges are also implicated. Judges David Roper and Wade Padgett continued to appoint Doug Nelson on cases, despite complaints against him.
“Judge Roper was sent a complaint by Tisdale in August 2013 about inappropriate behavior by Nelson on a case, but Judge Roper told me in May that he didn’t report Nelson because ‘sexual harassment isn’t a crime in Georgia.'” These complaints go beyond sexual harassment–the act of unwanted touching is assault. And if Nelson pursued these mothers through text, phone calls or visits–he could be implicated in stalking. Certainly, the allegations needed to be investigated, and the families involved needed to be protected from further harm and retaliation. That the Judge was in the position to do something and refused to act, implies collusion and deeper levels of corruption.

“What did judges know about guardian ad litem issues?” by Nick Lulli. WFXG, 12/04/2014: http://www.wfxg.com/story/27552940/what-did-judges-know-about-guardian-ad-litem-issues

For more history of the investigation, stories, videos, and updates please visit WFXG Fox 54’s online thread about Courts and Custody Battles: http://www.wfxg.com/category/283560/fox-54-investigates-courts-and-custody-battles

Thank You Nick Lulli, WFXG and Fox for investigating and covering this important story; for giving victims a voice and raising awareness about problems in family court and the GAL system. I hope with awareness, will come understanding of the very real devastation and harm caused to parents and children, and with that will come significant reform.

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

On a Caribbean island big changes are sweeping across Family Court like a tidal wave…
Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island county off the coast Venezuela; it has a combined population of 1.4 million. The capitol city is Port of Spain.

Trinidad and Tobago has begun an innovative project to improve Family Court’s operations and it’s response to the people it serves. Visitors from all over the world are visiting the new pilot project Court in Port of Spain.

(August 2014) Chairman of the Court’s monitoring committee, Justice of Appeal Gregory Smith, spoke to Julian Neaves of “Trinidad and Tobago Newsday” about an important pilot project designed to improve Family Court.

The Family Court of Trinidad and Tobago has implemented a pilot Family Court in Port-of-Spain to improve the quality of Court services and promote conciliation between parties. Justice Smith says about this new system, “The Family Court was not based on a foreign model but they ‘forged ahead on (their) own’ and created a system they thought would work best for Trinidad and Tobago.” The Court was intended to serve the capital city of Port-of-Spain and its districts. The Family Court pilot project is a test run for future projects in the Magistrates’ Court and High Court.

Justice Smith identified three issues the pilot Family Court would address “…the prominence of family matters in modern society; the adversarial system of justice in which we operate was inappropriate for family matters; and finally, that the rules and operational systems adopted in the courts were outdated and needed changing.”

Justice Smith believes that family matters impact all levels of society. A breakdown in the family causes problems in society on all levels-socially, spiritually, economically, financially (etc) and directly affects local communities. Further, children who are not receiving proper care and nurturing, or children who do not have a stable home life, often become anti-social, self-destructive and face problems coping in the real world. This results in an increase in crime, gang activity and family dysfunction. Ongoing litigation in Court, and increased hostility in families in turn negatively affects society, and our children.

Justice Smith elaborates that an adversarial court system is “wholly inappropriate for family matters” because the fighting and negative emotions experienced in high conflict court battles often continue long after the final settlement, and negatively impact outcomes for families and children. Justice Smith believes the best way to resolve hostility and empower families is through conciliation, with the Court supporting those efforts and providing resources necessary for amicable settlement.

Some of the rules and operational procedures Justice Smith felt needed to be changed include that Judges are over burdened, taking on as many as 15-20 cases per day. A large, demanding caseload decreases a Judge’s ability to address matters. If a Judge could not attend to all the issues before him in a day, his docket would pile up–and a back log would begin. Judges would also change frequently as case loads were shifted to accommodate the volume, which means families were also shuffled between judges. In the pilot Family Court, a docket system would be implemented and one judge will be assigned to a case from beginning to end. The docket system streamlines the Court process and is designed to increase transparency.

Another new feature of the pilot Family Court is that social services is integrated into the Court system. In the previous system, a litigant would need a referral for social services, and may have to wait 2-3 months to get help. The pilot Court includes in-house services of social workers, mediators and probation officers (and other necessary professionals). The services of the social workers include counseling, to a limited extent, and mediation. The public can access services from a social worker without having proceedings in court and without hiring an attorney. Judges can also issue referrals to psychologists, clinical psychologists or similar professionals for litigants at no cost (paid for by the Court), and for non-litigious matters.

Other services offered in the Family Court building include parenting classes, co-parenting programs and the Holistic Opportunities for Empowerment (HOPE) program. The Court also features new, child-friendly waiting areas for youth and teens.

The Court building is also unified in that it brings together the both High Court judges and magistrates adjudicate in one building, addressing matters in their respective jurisdiction “The magistrates who sit in the Family Court can only deal with cases brought by persons resident within the magisterial district of St George West in which Port-of-Spain is located. There is no similar restriction on the jurisdiction of the High Court Judges comprising the Court. The Family Court, however, has an identity of its own. It is a single integrated institution, housed in a building which is dedicated exclusively to it.”

Another feature is increased Court staffing, which has been an issue of concern in the past. Waiting times for litigants has been greatly reduced.

Funding still remains a challenge for the pilot Court, as the dedicated funding for this project was removed. Added services, unifying the Courts and other changes have also created a need for more space in the building. A planned expansion of the Court will convert the former St. Joseph’s Convent in San Fernando into the Court. The cost is $151 million, construction is expected to begin in January 2015, and be completed in 2 years. When the Court opens its doors in San Fernando, persons living in San Fernando, Siparia, Point Fortin and Princes Town can file applications there. There are also hopes to establish a Family Court in East and Central Trinidad.

Justice Smith believes an investment into an improved Family Court system is a worthy case, “And you will see it immediately in the society. A more holistic and healthy society.”

Source:
“Justice Smith: Family court for a holistic society” By Julien Neaves, August 17 2014. Trinidad and Tobago Newsday: http://www.newsday.co.tt/crime_and_court/0,199209.html

NOTE: It is encouraging that Trinidad and Tobago is implementing these Family Court reform measures. I sincerely hope that Family Court procedures will improve, and work to assist and support families and improve the court system overall.

Being a victim of family court abuse, I encourage the Courts to create mechanisms where litigants can voice complaints without fear of retaliation, and with an independent, neutral agency to handle complaints. There needs to be increased accountability, as well as transparency. I encourage strong discipline against Court officers who violate the law or act outside of professional standards.

 

 

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