PORTLAND — Dr. Jerome Collins’ recent critique of the guardian ad litem “system” in Maine (Maine Voices, “Maine’s guardian ad litem program desperately needs better oversight,” March 9) recites some weaknesses in the supervision of guardians ad litem in Maine, identified in reports by the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability in 2006, and by the Report of the Advisory Committee on Children and Families, the judicial branch’s 2008 response.

Contrary to his claims, there is no “scandal,” and nothing is being “suppressed.”

Instead, there is wide agreement that improvements in guardian ad litem supervision would be beneficial and there is an ongoing dialogue regarding the resources necessary to accomplish that goal.

Let’s look at real scandals! The lack of support by state government for the judicial branch is scandalous! Maine ranks 43rd out of 50 states in comparative funding for its court system.

Another scandal, documented in the 2008 report, is that Maine operates a two-tier system of judicial decision-making for separating parents with children. Because Maine requires parents to pay for guardians ad litem, those families without means simply don’t get a guardian ad litem, unless one is willing, as most are, to take a case pro bono.

Guardians ad litem are mental health or legal professionals who have undergone court training and have experience with divorcing families. We are appointed by the court to conduct an investigation and make recommendations as to how to resolve disputes regarding parental rights and responsibilities.

Guardians ad litem are mostly appointed in family law cases identified as “high-conflict,” involving parents who are unable to set aside their own emotions and interests to arrive at what is best for their children. The parents have their lawyers looking out for them.

Who looks out for the children? As guardians ad litem, we do. We consider complicated issues of mental health, substance abuse and addiction, domestic violence, parental alienation, children’s mental and physical health, the role of extended family members, including new romantic partners, and all of the state-mandated factors in assessing what is in a child’s best interest, while abiding by court rules and extensive standards of practice.

We do not make the ultimate decisions. Those belong, in the first place, to the parents. If parents are still unable to agree, they must rely on the “stranger in a black robe,” the judge, to make their decisions for them.

It is an exaggeration to say that guardians ad litem have no oversight. Keep in mind that half of all litigants are likely to be upset with the recommendations we make. We file written reports with the court and are subject to cross-examination by the lawyers and the presiding judge.

Sometimes parents ask the judge for our removal when they are unhappy with our recommendations. A hearing is held and the judge decides. Other parents are so resentful of our “failure” to see their case “their way” that some file complaints with the chief judge after their case is over. The chief judge decides if a guardian ad litem has violated the standards of practice, not should we have made different recommendations. After a trial, parents have the right to appeal to the law court.

How big a problem is lack of supervision? The chief justice estimates that guardians ad litem are appointed on roughly 1,500 family matters cases each year. (Not including the 2,500 cases brought by the Department of Health and Human Services for abuse/neglect, nor guardianship in probate courts).

The chief justice reports in the last two years there were 27 complaints regarding guardian ad litem performance made to the chief judge of the district court, who oversees guardian ad litem professional conduct. The chief judge issued one verbal reprimand and one written reprimand. Out of more than 9,000 cases.

The 2008 report proposed establishing an Office of the Child’s Advocate.

We strongly believe that such an office would provide for greater accountability and a mechanism by which to censure errant guardians ad litem, but would also promote guardian ad litem professionalism, education and practice before guardian ad litem malpractice impacts a family and their children.

This improvement will cost money. Keeping track of 300 guardians ad litem is not and should not be a matter of having a post office box to receive complaints. The chief judge already has one of those.

If the goal is simply to remove completely incompetent guardians ad litem from the roster, the present system is adequate, if not perfect.

If the goal is to improve the selection and performance of guardians ad litem and the services they render, the objective identified by the 2008 report, that comes with a price.

The choice isn’t, as Dr. Collins posed it, between a Cadillac and some “less expensive” unidentified model.

Given the economic realities facing our courts, “adequate” may have to do.

Toby Hollander of Portland is president of the Maine Guardian ad Litem Institute.

– Special to The Press Herald