Increased oversight needed for troubled guardian ad litem program

 

 

The Augusta Chronicle has done the public a great favor by drawing attention to problems faced, and to some extent created, by guardians ad litem, who are appointed by courts to represent the interests of children in divorce cases.

 

SINCE GUARDIANS do not represent the divorcing parents, they serve an important but entirely different role than do attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants. Attorneys are trained in adversarial proceedings to argue the case for their clients. Guardians, like the children they represent, find themselves in the middle of difficult and often troubling circumstances.

And while guardians seek to discover the best possible solution for children of divorce, “best possible” is almost always “least hurtful,” because divorce hardly ever is without pain for the affected children.

For more than 12 years, I served as a guardian in the Augusta Judicial Circuit on cases assigned to me by more than 10 judges.

During part of that time I served also as president of the guardian association (now defunct), which attempted through its bylaws, training programs and other forms of assistance to ensure professional and ethical work by individual guardians.

The bylaws included provisions for a panel of a judge, two attorneys and two senior guardians to hear and make the court aware of legitimate concerns by parents, guardians and attorneys.

 

I KNOW IT IS true that some guardians have abused their authority. For example, some charge clients for leaving messages, texting, driving short distances and emailing. Some have very little interaction with the children. Some guardians also do not itemize their statements or keep written notes of interviews. But I also know that there are far more good guardians than bad ones. Most are fair, ethical and hard-working – and most do not charge divorcing parents for such matters as phone calls, emails and in-town travel.

Still, as The Chronicle has pointed out, there have been cases of excessive billing by guardians. Such billings are due, I think, to an absence of standards and procedures other than the $65 per hour that guardians are allowed to charge for their services. Individual guardians are left with the freedom to charge or not charge for some activities – and to take into consideration or not take into consideration the financial problems faced by divorcing parents.

 

STANDARDS AND accountability are desperately needed. And people who have problems with the work of guardians need to have some place to take their complaints besides the media.

So what can be done now? A collective effort within the judicial circuit, led by the judges themselves, could do a world of good.

A good start would be a commission empowered by the Augusta Judicial Circuit to investigate current complaints and then develop guidelines and regulations for guardians. I would hope that such a commission would consider some means – such as the board once envisioned by the guardian association – by which individual claims of injustice in custody cases could be heard without the additional expense of lawyers and court costs.

 

THE EFFORT ALSO could develop specific guidelines for billings. Since the work of guardians is in part a public service (most do the work because they want to help children), their billings should be subject to some kind of review to ensure fairness. For a guardian to bill without limit or review and then have the court force parties to pay is a horribly wrong practice.

Judges can fix this problem.

And there is another problem, one involving the judges themselves. Too often, judges appoint guardians whom attorneys have requested. Since there should never be even a hint of collusion between an attorney and a guardian, judges should not seek the opinions of attorneys in guardian appointments.

 

IF PROBLEMS ARE not fixed, I’m afraid the allegations of abuse by guardians will continue to grow – and the good work of many fair-minded and considerate guardians will be tarred by the same brush used by the media to point out the abuses of a few guardians.

At the heart of this matter are children – those people without voice and power whom guardians are empowered to represent. In whatever might be done to improve the work of guardians or the work of the courts in custody cases, the children must not be forgotten.

They definitely need guardians who will observe and listen to them and then, in court, recommend the “least hurtful” judicial choices.

 

(The writer lives in Evans.)

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