A shocking scandal that broke in the local courts last week reveals two huge, fundamental and scary problems with the “guardian ad litem” program that provides supposedly objective officials to make custody recommendations in divorce cases.
1. There seems to be no standard of conduct for the GALs – who need only take 40 hours of training to offer their services to the courts. And thus, there’s no discernible mechanism for disciplining or even monitoring them.
If there are no rules, there are no rules to break!
2. The hiring of GALs is such an informal arrangement – they are contract workers arranged for either by the judge or the attorneys in a case – that no one seems to be in charge.
In short, policing the ranks just isn’t done. And, in fact, when local judges recently discussed the mere act of making a list of the available guardians ad litem, they decided against it.
Since then, we’ve learned that one guardian ad litem, Doug Nelson – not to be confused with Augusta attorney Douglas Nelson – had been taken off his cases and even forced to resign as a part-time magistrate judge. Allegations surfaced that he was acting inappropriately toward women he was interviewing in divorce cases.
“He pulled me, in public, to him, chest to chest,” one woman told The Augusta Chronicle last week. “Then he started stroking my back. I thought, ‘OK, this isn’t right.’”
No, it’s absolutely not right. It’s very, very wrong.
“She said in the end Nelson did not fairly represent her case to the presiding judge and did what appeared to be very little work,” the Chronicle story reported.
Fact is, authorities know of at least one other case, and perhaps others. This page knows of one case in which Nelson’s report to the court was completely contrary to what he’d said it would be. Luckily, his report was so off-the-mark that the judge in the case rejected it wholly and even rebuked Nelson for getting it so wrong.
To add insult to injury, it’s the men and women getting divorced who pay the hourly fees of a guardian ad litem: $65 an hour for a layman, and $120 for an attorney acting as one.
“We’ve got to come up with the money to pay this guy to abuse us,” a party in that case told us. “I would like to get my money back.”
One court official we spoke to defended the GAL program by noting that many of the guardians perform much more work than they bill the parties for.
Perhaps, but what happens when they don’t? There’s virtually no supervision. Certainly you have to wonder if other cases Nelson was involved with should be reviewed or overturned.
Except that the GAL program is so loosey-goosey that one observer told us, “There is no centralized administration of guardians. Each is an independent contractor assigned on a case-by-case basis. So, it is very difficult to determine how many cases Nelson had and when he was assigned or accepted his last guardian case.”
And get this: Even though guardian ad litem reports are only recommendations that judges can accept or reject, both the woman in the Chronicle story and the divorced parent we talked to said their attorneys advised them not to report Nelson’s behavior, for fear of what he could do to them in his report.
We find that unconscionable, but also horribly bad legal advice – to sweep inappropriate behavior under the rug.
It shocks the senses to think of a court-appointed official preying on women who are in some of the most vulnerable states in their lives, while going through divorce with children.
The lack of accountability and responsibility in the system is stunning.
Someone needs to accept responsibility. We don’t know who else it could be other than the judges.