The toughest legal cases are family cases heard in district courts across Maine. Behind closed doors, decisions that profoundly affect children and their parents are decided, and at least one party is sure to walk away unhappy.
The guardian ad litem is a figure who plays a little understood but vitally important role in these cases. Unlike the name would suggest, these officials are not guardians who care for children. They are instead investigators and expert witnesses who look out for a child’s interests and are able to testify in court. They are appointed by a judge in a case, paid little if they are paid at all and have no special training or oversight.
The guardian ad litem program has been subject to criticism over the years, leading to several studies and reports but little change. This week, the issue will be the subject of a rare public hearing before Maine’s Chief Justice Leigh Ingalls Saufley, who is scheduled to report back to the Legislature next fall with proposed changes.
The public hearing will be held at 4 p.m. on Thursday in the Feeney Conference Room on the first floor of the Cumberland County Courthouse.
In testimony to legislators this year, Saufley acknowledged problems with the system. Families find it difficult to lodge a complaint against a guardian ad litem, and unlike lawyers and social workers, they are they are not overseen by any professional board. There is very little mentoring or evaluation of a guardian ad litem’s performance in the middle of a case because the guardian’s “boss” is the judge, who couldn’t coach a GAL any more than he or she could coach any other witness. That would have to come from a new state program, which is hard to create amid constant budget cutting.
Critics of the guardian ad litem system have filed a report with Saufley and are calling for an outside evaluation of the people who represent children in courts. Self-described “bad sports” because they are unhappy with the outcome of custody cases, the group GALAlert wants tighter oversight of guardian ad litems and an end to ex parte conferences in which the guardians meet in private with judges.
Saufley’s hearing will not be about retrying those cases, but determining the best way for children’s interests to be represented in court. There is no more sensitive job in our legal system, and everyone should be focused on getting it right.