Friday, June 15, 2012

Is 1% really a problem with Maine's Guardian ad litems?

According to Maine's Judicial Branch the number of complaints filed against GALs is small. On average about 13 to 14 a year, or 1% of the total divorce/custody cases with GALs, end up with complaints. Of these complaints in the last two years (2010 and 2011) the Chief District Court Judge Charles LaVerdiere issued a written warning in 2011 and a verbal one in 2010. From this scant data one might say that there really is no problem with the GAL system we have in the state of Maine.  All is well, or is it?

What do these numbers, which were  presented at the hearing on May 31, 2012, really tell us? Nothing. Nothing other than there were 13 cases where one or both parties felt strongly enough about the integrity of the GAL on their case to pursue a complaint, a course of action that for the average person will consume both time and money with little hope of corrective action and miniscule feedback from Judge LaVerdiere.  A person might be as well off investing that money in the lottery – to many there appears to be an equal chance of a favorable response.

What are the numbers at the district court level? How many complaints are filed there, and what is the out come of those complaints? If there were records would they be accurate? How many legitimate complaints never made it to the judge, because, as one concerned parent wrote to the Judiciary – a complaint against the GAL “would hinder my case, and the GAL could deal with the case not in a favorable way”.  Fear of what may happen in custody judgments if one makes an unsuccessful complaint about a GAL is a big deterrent.  A GAL's wounded ego may make things worse for the complainer.  How about supervised visits with your child until the age of 18?  And ... for you, a lifetime program of anger management, if you want those supervised visits.

So how big is the numbers  problem with the GALs in Maine? Big numbers, or are things okay. It really depends on how you define the complaint "problem". From a GALs perspective, looking top down, there is no problem with a system that generates 13 complaints a year. From a parents perspective 13 does not accurately reflect the issues we are hearing about from consumers who are actually dealing with GALs and their behavior.  The anecdotal data we are getting is significant.  But GAL malpractice lacks a series of open criteria or definitions for framing a complaint from the Judicial Branch.  Then there is the reporting problem.  As consumers, we are intimidated and sometimes coerced into keeping silent. When we have a complaint there is no user friendly system to record that complaint at the District Court level. As we have mentioned earlier, no records or statistics at this level does not mean the system is functioning as it should. It only means that no one has established a system for collecting and counting the numbers.


  1. This is a serious problem, because there are absolutely no criteria, no guidelines for filing a complaint with Judge La Verdiere. If one looks at some generic categories, it is hard to guess, if any of these categories might warrant "corrective action of any sort from Judge La Verdiere.

    Ethical infractions: conflicts of interest, accepting/asking for gifts, threats, inappropriate relationships - do these matter? Would they be valid areas for a complaint? Your guess is as good as mine. It is a shot in the dark, with no guidelines.

    Statutory violations. Are they worth a complaint or not? Guess! We're not telling.

    Child safety issues are probably a waste of time for a complaint, since they draw little attention and are frequently read as a play to "win" against your adversary.

    Bias towards one party is most often a "non-starter". You'd need a video and 10 witnesses.

    Consumers are not stupid. There is recognition that a complaint to the Chief Judge is a total "crap shoot". No criteria, no guidelines, no open hearing, and feedback is an insulting "one liner." Our verdict: no target to aim at, no enforcement, no oversight. Final analysis: malfunctioning GALs are definitely not a problem for the judiciary.

    The statistics are wonderful, limited problem. Controlling the complaint process, controls the statistics!

  2. Although Maine's Judicial Branch records indicate very limited complaints about GALs and minimal "corrective action" (2 "tut tuts" in 2 years), it is obvious that "First Star", a national child advocacy group "begs to differ". Maine has received an "F" on its national report card for the last 3 years on child safety and children's rights.

    NH has a much more "user friendly" GAL complaint system, which provides several pages of instruction in how to file a complaint, a standardized form which guides complaint presentation, suggestions regarding documentation, a transparent hearing process, notification of outcome and a posting of the GAL's status after on an official web site.

    Maine's Boards of registration have a complaint process that is similar to the NH process described above. Their staff are available to help people making a complaint. It is user friendly, transparent and accountable. Consumer protection is taken seriously.

    Maine's complaint process reflects an "attitude problem" about consumer complaints. Such complaints are inevitably perceived as the result of a "bad outcome" and the one making the complaint is being a bad sport or whiner. Consumer protection is a revolutionary idea for the JB.