The $1,453 bill was handed to Robbie Roberson in Columbia County Civil Superior Court last November with little explanation and no supporting documentation.
Judge Michael Annis asked the Evans father whether he was ready to proceed, but Roberson, 55, said he was not prepared to pay the invoice, which had nearly doubled in one month for services provided by his 10-year-old daughter’s guardian ad litem, Janet Weinberger.
Transactions on the financial statement failed to match those listed on previous bills, with descriptions of services appearing to be added or altered since January, when Annis had appointed Weinberger to Roberson’s divorce to assist in custody, visitation and child support decisions.
On Feb. 21, she charged $26 for a field visit with Roberson’s daughter at River Ridge Elementary School in Columbia County, but e-mails from two teachers say they never saw her, according to Roberson’s records.
Again, on April 1, Weinberger billed Roberson $6.50 for a “telephone call with attorney,” but financial statements from each party’s lawyer listed no guardian calls on that date.
Another discrepancy occurred Sept. 27, when she billed $65 for a “telephone call with dad regarding visitation.” Roberson’s phone records show no wireless calls from Weinberger.
“The bill was just outrageous,” said Roberson, who agreed to pay $595 in past-due charges but refused to compensate Weinberger for the rest. “It blew me away.”
A review of 5,460 domestic-relations cases in Richmond and Columbia counties by The Augusta Chronicle found guardians ad litem, some of whom are appointed twice as often as their peers, faced few restrictions and virtually no oversight in their billing, leaving many parents in debt, struggling to pay for costly divorce, child custody and DNA decisions.
In Augusta’s Judicial Circuit, bills are not collected or audited; there are no rules requiring Superior Court judges to assign cases on a rotation; and guardians have the power to hold clients in contempt to recover unpaid fees, an action that many parents say they’re threatened with if bills are not paid in five to 10 days, as requested. Judges say that finances can be appealed in court but that many bills are not brought to their attention. Annis did not return phone calls seeking comment on Weinberger’s billing in Roberson’s case, but he said in an interview earlier this month that he usually sees invoices only if a case goes to a final hearing and a balance is due, at which time he will enter an order requiring payment.
“I appoint guardians when it seems to be in the best interest of the child,” Annis said. “Once I make that appointment, and enter that order, that’s it. I am not in the loop anymore, until there is a hearing and a guardian testifies.”
‘Set up to fail’
Records show, and parents and advocates say, that questionable charges and a lopsided case distribution have affected all parts of the program. For instance, three guardians – Angel Kendrick, Renee Bell and Weinberger – were appointed to 63 percent of the 255 civil cases requiring custody experts from Jan. 1, 2013, to Oct. 31 of this year.
One guardian resigned; the program’s advisory association has dissolved; a judge has stopped making appointments; and some case workers wait months for assignments.
“The family court system here is not working. It’s set up to fail,” said Sheryl Glover, who organized Stop Parental Bullying three years ago to advocate for parents, such as Roberson, who felt they were unfairly treated in Richmond and Columbia counties. “There are no set standards for billing or training.”
According to Georgia’s Uniform Superior Court Rules, judges can appoint as a guardian any person who is trained in domestic relations law; child development techniques; interviewing, report-drafting, and record-keeping skills; courtroom ethics; domestic violence and substance abuse; and family dynamics and dysfunction. No diploma or degree is required. The court sets their hourly rate and the process through which guardians are paid. In Augusta, guardians earn $65 an hour, with wages being subtracted from a $250 to $500 retainer that each party pays on appointment.
The deposits consistently fail to cover the costs, records show. In at least six cases in the past two years, invoices show that Weinberger and Kendrick often exceeded retainers in one bill, sometimes by as much as $875, by charging fees that families say should be covered by their hourly wages – including $1 for every text message, e-mail and minute they spend on the phone. Altogether, 10 invoices collected showed $6,640 in charges.
Court records state that many families face $470 to $1,500 in debt after cases are closed, with little leeway to negotiate payments.
Roberson is one example. Court costs, attorney’s fees and guardian charges almost four times greater than his $250 retainer contributed to his declaring bankruptcy, moving in with a friend and going on food stamps, he said. This month, he got a job in bridge construction at Thurmond Lake and has hired an Atlanta attorney to file a federal lawsuit against Weinberger for damages. Glover is helping him through the process.
“The amount of money these guardians are charging is ridiculous,” she said. “The problem is, there is no accountability or anyone who oversees our guardians. They act as they please.”
Judges say Weinberger, a former state social worker, and Kendrick treat guardian appointments as a full-time job. In the past two years, Kendrick has been appointed to 70 cases in Richmond and Columbia counties, half remaining open today.
Court records and e-mails show that a 2012 divorce client, Tricia Vautaw, manages her bills, many of which parents say are requested to be paid in cash at a UPS Store postbox in Martinez, in five to 10 days after invoices are issued. If they’re late, a $25 fee is charged.
Tiffany Brown, 33, of Evans, saw Kendrick appointed by Annis to her divorce in April 2012, on a $500 retainer split between both parties. The marriage involved two sons, ages 9 and 12. After a $145 invoice in May, she exceeded the deposit by $42 in July, and then by an additional $611 on Aug. 15. Brown paid the first bill, but fell behind $406 in past-due charges in July and August while pregnant with her third child.
Brown said Sept. 7 that she could pay $50 a month until she ended maternity leave and returned to work, but Kendrick replied in an e-mail four days later that her terms were unacceptable. She asked Brown to “please take care of this immediately so I do not have to pursue any further action.”
“Tiffany, part of this balance was due before you went on maternity leave,” Kendrick wrote. “You were court-ordered to pay the balance within 30 days. Please take care of your balance promptly. I have not received the $50 payment you said you would leave at my box either.”
Said Brown of Kendrick’s billing: “I ended up paying off all her charges, but she was difficult with me throughout the entire process and I don’t know why. Everything seemed to be a chore.”
Kendrick did not respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment, but Weinberger, who has 25 cases, about half of which are active, deferred “all comment about the guardian ad litem program” to Superior Court Judge David Roper.
A 14-page packet titled GAL Essentials that Roper issues to each appointee prohibits guardians from discussing any work with the media, “unless authorized by the court.”
It also requires guardians to visit the homes of each party at least twice; contact parents every two weeks; keep extensive records; complete 12 hours of continuing education annually; and pass a criminal background check every two years.
Guardian Julia Bloodworth, however, said the group that documents whether training policies are met, the Guardian Ad Litem Association, dissolved last year after Weinberger became its president.
Although the association went under, Roper, who, records show, appoints guardians to almost every contested case he hears, said guardians exceed expectations. In the past two years, Roper has appointed guardians to 93 cases, 80 percent of them distributed to four people. He said no billing controversies have been brought to his attention.
“I know how they do their job,” Roper said. “I know what to expect, and they know what I expect.”
Annis, who appoints the second-most guardians behind Roper, was one of Augusta’s first Superior Court judges to appoint Kendrick in October 2011, after she completed her training and a mentorship with longtime guardian Tina Masaracchia.
He said Kendrick, whom he appointed to 26 of 48 cases – twice as often as anyone else – is his “go-to person.”
“Most of the time they ask for whomever I’d like to appoint and if they do, I will appoint Angel Kendrick, because of the confidence I have in her and the job she does,” Annis said. “She is thorough, doesn’t mind traveling and seems to get along well with everyone.”
Annis said he is sure Kendrick would let him know whether the caseload was too much. Some guardians who are rarely appointed, however, question whether three guardians sharing 63 percent of the cases is effective.
“The caseload needs to be managed on a small level for the guardians to attend training regularly, learn new ways to connect with children and better decide what’s best for them,” said guardian Faye Walker, who has received only three cases in two years, according to records.
Walker, a mental health intervention specialist, said she regularly observes Juvenile Court, has attended state-sponsored foster care training, and is working on a criminal justice degree at Strayer University.
“I always try to keep my bills as low as possible,” she said. “I do testimony, report writing and travel. That’s
all I charge. Faxes, phone calls, e-mails and text messages are part of the job of looking after the best interest of the child in a responsible way.”
Guardians and advocates agreed the system needs to be overhauled. Most suggest a program in which training is regulated on a statewide level, judges rotate appointments among guardians who have psychology or social work degrees, unethical behavior is punishable by sanction and the court provides standardized invoices to guide billing.
Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett stopped appointing guardians in October because he no longer had the desire to manage the program’s day-to-day activities. He said a case-by-case review is needed to identify and prioritize a list of improvements.
Georgia Sen. Jesse Stone, whose district includes Richmond and Columbia counties, serves on the Judiciary Committee, which acts on legislation affecting civil procedure and practice. He said a handful of people have come to him with concerns of guardians improperly handling money and favoritism by judges.
“I am not sure how you would address it legislatively, but it probably warrants a study committee to flesh out the problem and entertain solutions,” Stone said this month at Columbia County’s pre-legislative breakfast..
“We need more concrete rules to properly run the program, but we do not have the means or the time to establish them,” Padgett said. “That job is the Legislature’s responsibility.”