KENNEBUNKPORT – There is a quietly suppressed guardian ad litem scandal in Maine that few know about unless they are children who have been affected by rogue members of the Maine Court’s guardian ad litem program.
Guardians ad litem are court-appointed professionals who are mandated by the courts to conduct investigations aimed at determining what is in the child’s best interest in cases involving child custody disputes and child protection issues.
The scandal is that once appointed by the courts, GALs, as they are known, have virtually no oversight from any source; no one but their child clients and their parents are aware of their field work. No agency or individual supervises them, and rogue GALs can manage to operate under the radar of any form of regulatory enforcement.
The program is totally dependent for its functional effectiveness on the personal integrity and ethics of the individual GALs. Thankfully, most GALs have high personal standards. Yes, there are published standards and regulations that are accessible on state government Web pages, but there is no one assigned to enforce these standards. There appears to be no operational entity to which one can report violations or infractions of standards for corrective action.
Judicial oversight of GALs is fraught with inherent conflicts of interest. So GAL accountability is completely reliant on the self-supervision of the GALs themselves.
The GAL program is officially under the aegis of the judicial branch of Maine government. The judicial branch certifies candidates as GALs, but apart from qualifying individuals as GALs, the judiciary has little further oversight.
There are more than 300 GALs in Maine, but the judicial branch keeps virtually no statistics on the program, which might provide rudimentary oversight. How many complaints about GALs originate in the district courts in which they operate? There is no record. How many complaints make it in appeals to the state level judiciary? Very few; the process is complex, aimed at discouraging complaints from all but the most zealous clients, and the majority of these complaints are dismissed. There is no record of the nature of complaints, and there appears to be an attitude on the part of the judicial branch that complainants are “bad sports,” dissatisfied with GAL decisions.
This may well be the case sometimes, but not always, and this judicial branch attitude further inhibits an examination of GAL problems. This sort of attitude positions the judicial branch as a part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The GAL oversight scandal is not unique to Maine. GAL problems have been reported from Maine to California. Problems frequently stem from how the GAL role is conceptualized from a legal/common law perspective. Are they exclusively advocates for the child, accountable to the child, like a personal lawyer, or are they an arm of the courts, entitled to legal immunity?
Other states have acted to address this problem creatively, making use of several generic models of oversight. It isn’t rocket science. Maine seems “stuck” and unable to move to solve this problem.
Maine has had at least two thorough, superbly documented major studies of the GAL oversight problem — in 2006 and 2009 — and additional other requests for action on this matter. These studies have highlighted the oversight problem in depth. The system is broken and badly needs fixing.
The most recent recommendations for correction of the GAL oversight problem carried an expensive price tag and were turned down because Maine couldn’t afford a “Cadillac program.”
But who says we need a Cadillac program? There are several less expensive models that other states are using for GAL oversight. Why not consider a less expensive program? Why not a more determined effort to work on this problem?
The problems of finding resolutions are two: The children who are the recipients of GAL services can’t advocate effectively for change, and there are special interests that benefit from inertia that slows any move to change.
On Feb. 24, the Oversight Committee of the Maine Legislature heard yet another appeal for an audit of GAL oversight question vigorously sponsored by Sen. Nancy Sullivan.
The Oversight Committee, after considerable discussion, decided to forward the GAL problem to the Judiciary Committee for review and action. Is this passing the buck or a move in the right direction?
We respectfully request that the Judiciary Committee act with all due speed.
Maine children who are victims of this broken system deserve better.
Dr. Jerome Collins lives in Kennebunkport.