Originally created 01/04/03

Groups demand family court reform



Republican Sen. Bill Mescher says reform legislation likely will be drafted next year.

Parents advocating the reform of South Carolina's family court system say legislation passed in 2002 doesn't go far enough and that they'll continue their pursuit of change.

Their efforts last year led to state legislation that regulates guardians ad litem for the first time. Guardians represent children in custody cases and are supposed to help family court judges decide which parent gets custody.

Parents have criticized guardians, who are often attorneys, for not interviewing both parents and for charging thousands of dollars in excess for their services.

The law, passed in July, requires that guardians, among other things, be at least 25 years old and submit proof of their work to judges. It also requires lay guardians to complete nine hours of legal education before practicing.

The law doesn't cap how much guardians can make and allows judges to decide those costs.

But judges also need to be regulated, says Miriam Palmer Ward, a member of the South Carolina Family Court Reform movement.

The group, which represents parents and grandparents statewide, is petitioning to have family court judges elected by residents and not the Legislature. It also wants rights for grandparents in South Carolina, who Ms. Palmer-Ward argues have none.

She said judges need just as much reform because they rely too heavily on guardians without scrutinizing their work.

"We want a grand jury of citizens rather than judges judging themselves," she said.

Republican Senator Bill Mescher, of Berkeley County, helped draft the original bill regulating guardians. He said his bill, which called for capping guardians' fees at $500, was watered down in the House by attorneys who work as guardians.

He said critics must wait and see how effective the legislation is before more is passed, though he agrees with the reform movement that judges should be elected by residents.

"There are a lot of complaints about what judges are doing in the family court," but there's nothing the Legislature can do, Mr. Mescher said.

Complaints about judges are reviewed by other judges, he said.

"Once we elect them, we're totally out of it. You never hear the result of a hearing (about a judge). It goes into a big void."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.