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Public Weighs in On Maine's Proposed 'Guardian ad Litem' Reforms
03/28/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Guardian ad Litems - or GALs - wield tremendous power in divorce cases where parental rights of minor children are at stake. Maine courts appoint GALs, who are usually lawyers, to represent children's best interests, and the recommendations they make about parental fitness - often with accusations of abuse flying back and forth - can be controversial. Critics have long complained that oversight of GAL conduct is weak and that challenging their recommendations can hurt the legal prospects of the party that makes the complaint. As Jay Field reports, a more than six-year push to reform the system may finally be coming to a head in the Maine Legislature.

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In 2006, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability did an extensive audit of Maine's GAL system. It recommended a comprehensive overhaul of everything from how GALs are screened, trained and suprervised, to how complaints about their conduct and decision-making are handled.

Nothing happened. Complaints about GAL misconduct have only intensified in the years since. So last spring, the state's judicial branch launched a new effort to look at the complaint and supervision issues.

Bob Mullen, who's the deputy chief judge of the Maine District Court, has served on the bench since 1996. Mullen has worked with GALs in countless divorce cases. "For me, what I like to have a guardian do is go out, investigate, come back and report," he said.

But how can Mullen trust that the information the GAL presents to him is an unbiased, accurate and independent assessment of what's in the best interest of a vulnerable child? In ways large and small, this is the question at the heart of the GAL reform bills before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The very first parent to testify at Thursday afternoon's public hearing highlighted why the calls for GAL reform have grown so loud. In 1984, Sylvia Knox and her first husband worked with a GAL during their divorce.

"She was a GAL, a family therapist and a marriage counselor. She had the education and experience, and met the criteria that we needed to determine what was best for our children and us," she said. "She understood and cared about the outcome of her responsibility to help us come to a positive resolution."

Knox and her husband worked out an amicable co-parenting agreement. It's a far cry from the experience she had during her next go around with a GAL. When her second marriage ran into trouble, Knox asked her first GAL if she was available again. But the woman told Knox she'd quit because the system was dysfunctional.

"I'm sorry to say that my expectations were shattered 10-fold by the guardian ad litem assigned to evaluate and investigate the family dynamics for my family in 2009," she said.

Knox says the court-assigned GAL was cunning, deceitful and tried to pit Knox and her second husband against each other. In her report, she found that the husband had discovered a renewed interest in being a parent to the couple's 14-year-old daughter.

"Shortly after gaining custody from the GAL's recommendation, he abandoned her and moved to Florida, leaving her alone, at 14, in a family-owned condo with no supervision, where she felt at risk, and decided to move in with her then-19-year-old boyfriend, his 21-year-old male friend and his 48-year-old father. Living with three male adult strangers at age 14 and 15 was, in my opinion, not in her best interest."

Knox says her complaints have gone nowhere. One of the bills in the Legislature, LD 522, would overhaul the process used to handle such grievances. The bill, which grew out of recommendations made by the chief justice of Maine's Supreme Judicial Court, would set up a Guardian Ad Litem Review Board to handle investigations and complaints. The panel would be run as an independent unit of the Board of Overseers of the Maine Bar.

Knox says she's uncomfortable with that set-up, and would like to see a review process that operates completely outside of Maine's legal system. Bernard Staples, a former district court judge, told lawmakers he favors the bill. But Staples also was quick to note that he's never had any problems with the GALs he worked with while on the bench.

"I never at once ever questioned what the guardian ad litem was doing, how well he or she were acting or if they were in any way were being inappropriate or were biased or bigoted," he said. "I always felt that they did a tremendous job."

Other bills before the Judiciary Committee would toughen certification and training standards for GALs.



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