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

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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

In 2012, the state's courts had 8,911 family matter cases involving children. A guardian ad litem was assigned in 657 of those cases. In 2011, there were 9,752 family matter cases; a guardian was assigned in 673.

"What the guardian is doing is an investigation and determining what is in the best interest of the child," Lynch said. "Guardians do not have the power to order anything. They make recommendations to the court."

The judge decides whether to accept a guardian's recommendation, and in some cases will deviate from the recommendation, she said.

"The law has evolved with the idea that the parents in these small sliver of cases may have very different ideas about what is in the best interest of the child," Lynch said. "These are the most hotly contested cases."

Maine has no board or managing entity to oversee guardians ad litem, and each one works independently. While cases are ongoing, parents can file complaints directly with the judge who assigned the guardian. If the case has concluded, complaints are directed to the chief judge of that court.

Lynch said the judicial branch has been working to reform the system. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court created two task forces to recommend changes. One reported back last year on ways to improve the way complaints about guardians are handled. The second reported at the beginning of this year on how to overhaul the program.

Two months ago, the courts issued a new rule requiring a judge to set the scope of work the guardian is expected to do, capping the hours and how much they can bill.

Jerome Collins, a retired psychiatrist from Kennebunkport, is a member of a group called Guardian ad Litem Alert who got involved after his son, Paul, was assigned a guardian in his divorce case.

Collins said he feels that guardians have too much power over people's lives and make large amounts of money doing it.

"It's a lack of oversight, it's a lack of supervision, lack of the judicial branch having a handle on what's going on," he said.

Collins said that before changes were enacted in the program recently, he collected stories of divorcing families paying guardian ad litem bills of more than $10,000.

"People are being bankrupted by this," he said.

Collins said his group has more than 400 members. He likened it to a support group whose members lobby for each other, communicating through emails, Facebook and blogs.

Collins got so involved in the issue that the chief justice of the state Supreme Court chose him to represent the public and serve on both task forces to reform the program. He disagreed with the final report on how to improve the complaint process, and quit the task force that was trying to overhaul the program before that group drafted its report.

He said the other members of the task force, including judges and guardians, were too involved in the system to be able to make adequate changes.

"It was basically what our group calls the divorce industry," he said. "I was the lone public individual. It was basically a group that all made their living on divorce."

Richard Bevins, a licensed therapist from Auburn, has acted as a guardian ad litem for 20 years. "I don't think anyone is out there to make a killing," he said.

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