2013-07-18 / News

Governor signs guardian ad litem bill

By Tracey Collins
Contributing Writer

BIDDEFORD/AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage signed a new law last week to hold those responsible for representing the best interests of children in custody disputes more financially and professionally accountable.

LD 872, An Act To Improve the Quality of Guardian ad Litem Services for the Children and Families of Maine was sponsored by freshman Sen. David Dutremble of Biddeford (D-District 4). The bill became the number one priority for the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, chaired by Sen. Linda Valentino of Saco (D-District 5).

It was Dutremble’s personal experience with a court-appointed Guardian ad Litem, or GAL, during his own divorce eight years ago that led him to support reform in his first year of office.

“GALs are often imposed by the court when parents can’t agree on the terms of the divorce. They hold a great deal of sway in determining custodial and visitation rights of parents and grandparents during custody disputes,” said Dutremble in an interview after the bill was signed.

“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.”

While GALs have traditionally been appointed by the courts in child protection cases to represent the best interests of children in legal matters, during the past 30 years, the responsibilities of GALs have been expanded to include family matters cases. In these instances, the parties involved in the dispute cover the GAL’s fees for research and testimony.

According to figures provided by Maine District Court, there are currently 297 Guardians ad Litem in Maine. Of the nearly 9,000 family matters cases involving children in 2012, 7 percent of those cases were assigned a GAL.

Although the number of GAL complaints are just a sliver of the work done in Maine courts, Dutremble says the emotional nature of these cases, an inefficient complaint process and excessive billing make them harrowing experiences.

“This often results in a tremendous financial burden for the very families whom they are appointed to serve,” he said.

The costs for his court-appointed GAL was more than $5,000 and Dutremble cites several examples of families in his district who have incurred thousands of dollars as legal disputes over custody cases dragged out.

The passing of the bill is seen as a victory by Maine GAL Alert, the grassroots advocacy group comprised of more than 400 people throughout Maine lobbying for reform.

“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,” said Dr. Jerome Collins of Kennebunk.

Collins is the leader of Maine GAL Alert and one of many individuals advocating for reform during testimony before the Judiciary Committee this spring.

Valentino said the judiciary has been trying to resolve this issue since 2006, when the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability conducted a performance audit of the GAL system that called for $1.6 million in recommended reforms just for child protective cases alone.

“The challenge has been the appropriations of funding. We were very fortunate to secure the $90,000 in this financial climate,” Valentino said. “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.”

Valentino said the money approved by the appropriations committee will be used to fund one full- and one part-time administrative position to gather data and supervise the GAL complaint process. Since 80 percent of GALS are lawyers, the new law also transfers oversight of GALs under the Bar of Overseers, which already has a system set up to monitor complaints of lawyers in other situations.

The law will not go into effect until January 2015 and gives the judiciary until Oct. 1, 2017 to track data and create an oversight system for a more transparent complaint process. The bill also requires the new administration to set a cap on how much a GAL can charge but it does not provide ongoing professional education training and support for GALs. Nor does it remove the quasi-judicial immunity that Maine GAL Alert was pushing for, which would have made GALs susceptible to lawsuits by unhappy parties.

Toby Hollander, president of the Maine GAL institute, has been a GAL for more than 25 years and is skeptical about the bill’s impact. Based in Portland, his institute serves approximately 50 percent of the rostered GALs in Maine, providing support and professional training that the state does not provide.

“It will make it harder for guardians to get paid but really it will drive up the costs of having a GAL because what people will call the cap, will become the retainer, making it harder for people who would benefit from a GAL to actually get one because they can’t afford the upfront costs.”

Instead, Hollander had hoped to see more emphasis on awareness-building and training; something Dutremble, the Judiciary, and Maine GAL Alert all agree is critical to providing better services to families.

“The training guardians get these days isn’t done by the court, it’s done by other GALs. The two positions created will allow the courts to start to collect more data, but they won’t have the manpower to train GALs as part of that system. I don’t begrudge the judicial branch getting any money, because they are terrifically underfunded. But, I think the committee created expectations that are going to be difficult to fulfill in the near future,” he said.

Hollander is also one of several people who served on the 2008 Advisory Committee for Children and Families, the group responsible for identifying solutions to the issues raised by the OPEGA report. He feels $90,000 isn’t nearly enough.

“The cost of getting basic system information is much more than the legislature allowed,” he said.

Hollander also believes the real failure in the complaint process is a lack of awareness within the judiciary.

“When there is a winner and a loser in a decision you will always have complaints. Part of the problem is that when people go into the process they don’t understand it very well. Lawyers and the court need to do a better job explaining to people why they need a GAL. They may see someone arguing in court and then the magistrate in the case just appoints a guardian without really explaining to the people why a guardian was appointed.”

Both Dutremble and Valentino say the new law is a pragmatic starting point and the bill’s sunset clause will allow the Judiciary to ensure the new system is being set up to the their liking.

“I found that as we started educating people about what GALs were and what they were doing, the committee came to consensus that there was a problem going on for the past 39 years and realized that it needed to be fixed,” Dutremble said. “It wasn’t political or partisan it was strictly for the children and families in Maine and a desire to make it more accountable and better for everyone. It can be tweaked as we go along and in my opinion it’s a good start.”

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