Wednesday, December 4, 2013
By Jerome A. Collins, M.D.
KENNEBUNKPORT - On Thursday at 1 p.m. in Room 438 of the State House, Maine's 280 guardians ad litem will face a "moment of truth" at a public hearing of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on four separate bills aimed at guardian ad litem reform.
These bills respond with a variety of approaches to the complaints and problems that have been documented by a year-old grass-roots support group called Maine Guardian ad litem Alert.
The demographics behind these problems are those of divorce in Maine, where 60 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and recent data give the annual number of Maine divorces of couples with children as about 3,200 per year.
In normal divorces, as well as in children's protective situations, a judge may appoint a guardian ad litem to aid the court in making child-custody decisions.
Maine guardians ad litem suffer from 39 years of serious managerial neglect, allegedly because of a chronic government failure to fund supervision.
Therefore, quite unbelievably, guardians ad litem operate with no formal oversight, no supervision and an absent, often self-improvised, job description. As one might imagine, it is a formula for chaos and disaster. It has led to complaints of what could be called "civilized barbarism" in the handling of children and their parents.
While there are published rules for guardians ad litem, there is no one in the judicial branch of government assigned to enforce them. Much of what guardians do happens out of court, unnoticed by the judges that appoint them.
Likewise, public complaints are possible, but without any guidelines, without instructions about making a complaint and without criteria for what constitutes the basis for a complaint, they go nowhere. Making a complaint is, effectively, a guessing game for the public, and complaints are almost entirely dismissed.
We offer here a very abbreviated list of just a few of many guardian ad litem complaints that have been brought to our attention by those involved in a divorce. Virtually all of these complaints have been dismissed by the current official complaint process.
We suspect the public might find this routine dismissal disturbing. In our opinion, they should at the least warrant investigation and some form of corrective action. To many people, these dismissals are unmistakable symptoms of serious managerial deficiencies.
• The guardian ad litem recommended that the "child's best interest" was best served by custody with a parent with diagnosed, active mental illness. The other parent had no such condition. This is not an uncommon situation.
• The guardian ad litem took no protective or investigative action when it was brought to her attention that the preschool child had cigarette burns on his arm and welts on his back.
• The guardian ad litem recommended against acting on correction of a congenital eye problem denied by one parent but diagnosed by a pediatric ophthalmologist because "that's what doctors always want to do: recommend treatment for patients."
• The guardian ad litem recommended that a 3-year-old girl was better off in the custody of her out-of-state father rather than her grandparents. The child's father has a history of alcohol and drug abuse, jail time and sexual abuse.
• In many cases, the guardian ad litem completely failed to meet and/or failed to form a relationship with the child, which is said to be a core responsibility for determining the "child's best interest" for the court.
• Guardian ad litem billing practices for their services are a very frequent source of consumer anguish.
There are no standards for guardian ad litem billing. Some guardians ad litem bill monthly; others bill only at the end of a case.
Itemization of billable time may or may not be done, and bills can vary enormously from $70,000 to $38,000 to half or a quarter of a couple's income. There is no cap or means test for controlling guardian ad litem fees.
Consumers are frequently intimidated into signing contracts, fearing that not to do so will affect guardian ad litem custody recommendations for their child. Contract enforcement is by courts familiar to guardians ad litem but not consumers. It's a civil rights nightmare.
In our opinion, documented problems like these are an urgent cry for professional management of guardians ad litem. The guardian ad litem program has been out of control for a scandalously long time. It is causing harm to Maine's children, and it urgently needs to be fixed.
We hope that Maine's 126th Legislature will respond to our cry for help and end these abuses that ill become a democratic society.
Jerome A. Collins, M.D., of Kennebunkport is a member of Maine Guardian ad litem Alert.