May 9, 2013

Complaints fuel bid to reform children's representation in Maine disputes

A legislator says the system that protects the interests of kids mistreats other parties.

By Scott Dolan
Staff Writer

Before David Dutremble got divorced in 2005 and fought for shared custody of his children, he had never heard of a guardian ad litem.


In New Hampshire, the guardian ad litem program has been overseen by the New Hampshire Guardian ad Litem Board since legislation was passed in 2002. The board has nine members appointed by various members of government and includes two members of the public.

The New Hampshire board has a formal complaint process, with a form that people can fill out online, said Jennifer Heinrich, the board's administrative secretary.

Each complaint is reviewed by a three-member subcommittee that brings concerns to the full board. If the complaint against a guardian is accepted, the guardian can file a response. The board can then review and decide whether to dismiss the complaint or proceed to a hearing. If the complaint is dismissed, the person who filed it has a right to appeal.

New Hampshire maintains records of its complaints, with results posted online. In 50 complaints filed since the beginning of 2005, seven were investigated and had hearings. Six led to reprimands against the guardians, with some suspended or removed from the state roster.

New Hampshire now has 135 certified guardians on its roster. The guardians must first take days of training followed by 30 hours of course work every three years, Heinrich said.

– Scott Dolan

Now, in his first term as a state senator, Dutremble is leading an effort to reform what he considers a broken system, in which judges assign specially registered lawyers or mental health workers to step into the most contentious cases, like divorces, to represent the children.

Dutremble, a Democrat from Biddeford, has filed a bill to make sweeping changes to Maine's guardian ad litem program, including a better definition of the role, a new management structure, a database to track the work, and increased requirements to qualify as a guardian ad litem.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on an amended version of his proposal at 2 p.m. Thursday.

"It's a hot issue. I'm a freshman senator and everyone knows my name," Dutremble said. "I'm getting a lot of pushback from lawyers and the judiciary. There's people who live off the guardian system. It's all about the money."

On opposing sides of the bill are the guardians themselves, and the parents who feel they were wronged by guardians' actions in their cases.

Dutremble said the guardian ad litem assigned to his case immediately sided with his ex-wife and decided that Dutremble's job as a Biddeford firefighter was not beneficial to raising children.

"She came in and started taking sides instead of figuring out what the best interest of the children was," he said. "I didn't know who to turn to. My attorney said, 'That's just the way it is.' "

As he was losing the custody battle, Dutremble was required by the court to pay the fees of the advocate who was making recommendations against him.

"Every time you send an email – cha-ching. Every time you make a phone call – cha-ching. People are afraid to complain because guardians make their life a living hell," he said.

Dutremble said he and his ex-wife ultimately reached a custody agreement on their own, after he had paid a $1,200 retainer fee to the guardian and realized that the cost and the contentious process were not benefiting him, his wife or their children.

He said he has talked to hundreds of people who have had bad experiences with guardians ad litem.

Nearly 300 guardians ad litem are on the state's roster. Most are lawyers and some are mental health workers. All must be licensed in their profession and must complete at least three days of social work training to be admitted to the roster, then must complete six hours of course work each year, said Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the state's judicial branch.

A judge appoints a guardian ad litem in three kinds of cases: probate court cases such as adoptions or to protect the interests of a disabled person; cases in which the state Department of Health and Human Services intervenes to protect neglected and abused children; and divorce or family matter cases in which parental rights, responsibilities and child custody are in question.

Lynch said the vast majority of complaints come from child custody disputes, because guardians are assigned only in the most contentious cases.

"In 93 percent of (custody) cases, we do not appoint a guardian ad litem," Lynch said. "In the vast majority of those cases, parents come to an agreement about parental rights and responsibilities."

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