The Augusta Judicial Circuit overhauled its guardian ad litem program last month, adopting new policies to contain growing outrage from families who say inexperienced child-custody evaluators are overbilling them in court.
The new guidelines – written by the executive committee of the Augusta Bar Association’s Family Law Section – significantly revise billing, training and professional-conduct policies to provide general oversight and accountability for guardians, said Superior Court Judge Michael Annis.
According to updated rules, guardians cannot exceed $500 in fees on any case unless authorized by a judge, and must provide invoices that include a brief description of all charges, payments and credits to date to both parties and their attorneys each month.
The revamped handbook further states that all guardians, including those who have served in the past, must pass a thorough application process requiring five years of experience, two letters of recommendation and a certificate from an organized training seminar before being added to an approved list that judges use to make appointments.
The new policy states that guardians can face termination from a case or removal as an approved guardian if a report of “unprofessional, abusive, harassing or intimidating conduct” towards a client is substantiated by the Augusta Bar or a Superior Court judge.
“We just thought we needed some consistency,” said Augusta lawyer Tom Allgood, the chairman of the bar’s Family Life Section. “The previous rules sort of varied from judge to judge, so we put in writing a uniform set of guidelines to make sure everybody – the guardians, the attorneys, the litigants and the judges – are on the same page.”
Allgood, who headed the eight-member executive committee that drafted the guidelines, said the panel considered more rigid rules for five months and began working on a new set in January.
In late November, a review by The Augusta Chronicle found that guardians in Richmond and Columbia counties – some of whom were appointed twice as often as their peers – faced few restrictions and virtually no oversight in their billing.
The newspaper’s investigation, which looked at 5,460 domestic-relations cases filed in the past two years, revealed that bills were not collected or audited, no rules existed requiring judges to assign cases on a rotation, and guardians had the power to hold clients in contempt to recover unpaid fees.
The lack of accountability caused one guardian to resign; the program’s advisory association to dissolve; a judge to stop making appointments; case workers to wait months for assignments; and many parents to struggle with paying off $470 to $1,500 in debts owed in costly divorce, child custody and DNA decisions.
Under the new rules, hourly rates for guardians remain at $65 an hour, but the fee has been redefined to include all travel costs incurred within the Augusta circuit and time spent on the phone or writing letters, text messages and e-mails to address case-related matters.
The new rules, however, prohibit guardians from collecting interest on an unpaid account and billing telephone charges, even those that are toll-free, unless they’re on a personal account. Nonpayment issues must be directed to the assigned judge, who has the authority to review and modify invoices.
Court records show that the program has just started adjusting to a reworked guardian appointment process that requires each party to sign an acknowledgement form stating they’ve received a copy of the new guidelines.
Since late November, guardian appointments have decreased by nearly half, with only 17 new domestic-relations cases filed in Richmond and Columbia counties being assigned custody evaluators. During that same time last year, 31 had guardians appointed.
Sheryl Glover, who organized Stop Parental Bullying three years ago to advocate for parents who felt mistreated by the program, said she was thankful changes were made but still had concerns of judges being able to approve guardians to exceed the $500 cap and make appointments as they pleased, instead of on a rotation.
Those issues were shared by Dr. Christy Cunningham, the former director of the program’s advisory association.
“I do agree that appointments have gone down (because) the same select few are still receiving cases, and the approved guardian list is not being used,” Cunningham said.
For example, three guardians – Angel Kendrick, Renee Bell and Janet Weinberger – were appointed to 63 percent of the 255 civil cases requiring custody experts from Jan. 1, 2013, to Oct. 31 of last year. Since then, Kendrick, Bell and Donna Anderson have received 12 of the circuit’s 17 guardian appointments, court records show.
Allgood said the bar has approved three guardians – Bell, Anderson and Hudson Bell – and will add more as applications are submitted.
“We wanted the bar association to take primary responsibility in reviewing applications and forming a list of approved guardians because we, the lawyers, work the closest with them,” he said. “We hope to transition to a point where only approved guardians are appointed, but no deadline has been set yet.”
Allgood said he expects the guidelines, which require guardians to have a “complete and comprehensive” understanding of the rules, to be uploaded to the group’s Web site in the near future for guardians and new applicants to review new requirements and qualifications.
Any person who wants to become a guardian must pay a $300 application fee, be interviewed, and if selected, appointed a mentor guardian with at least three years’ experience in the program. Mentoring must cover a home evaluation, case interviews, report writing and observation of 30-day, temporary and final hearings.
Guardians also must complete at least 12 hours each year of continuing education, which includes any legal seminar approved for credit in Georgia that addresses domestic law issues.
Despite the new guidelines, one Superior Court judge, Wade Padgett, said he continues to shy away from the program. Court records show that as soon as Padgett became aware that a guardian case was transferred to his office, he entered an order Jan. 26 dismissing Anderson from further service and requiring any fees paid to her be refunded two weeks after Judge David Roper made the appointment. The case was dismissed two weeks later.
Roper, who has appointed guardians to nearly twice as many cases in the past two years as his fellow judges, did not return e-mail messages seeking comment on changes to the program.
Padgett said the moratorium he placed on guardian appointments in October remains intact but that there might come a time or a case in which he changes his stance on an “isolated basis.”
“I will reiterate again that I will appoint a (guardian) when the right factual situation arises that warrants such an appointment,” he said. “I have not found such a case – to my memory – since I instituted the policy last fall.”