State of Maine
Dear Governor LePage,
Divorce in Maine, when child custody is involved, has evolved into an expensive, barbaric, often cruel process. Custody decisions by our courts often seem irrational and participants all too often find it impossible to correct a bad decision or a bad process. At Maine Guardian ad litem Alert (MeGALert), based on the data from our many contacts with people in the terrible throes of divorce, we increasingly feel that there is a need for a Maine Commission aimed at assessing the impact of divorce and custody on Maine children and families- and recommending repairs to a badly broken family court system. 60 % of American marriages are reported to end in divorce, and Maine is no different from the rest of the US. But beyond dry statistics, our experience with hundreds of individuals tells us that there are psychological, social and economic side effects of the family court experience, that wreck the lives of those that have gone through divorce for years to come. It is a shameful record. It calls for action.
Although we would certainly support a broadly focused Commission that took a total systems approach, we would suggest that there are several important areas where a narrower commission might assess serious problems and propose solutions without crossing the boundaries of another branch of government: (a) the economics of divorce and its impact on the present and future of (60%) Maine citizens and on the state itself, (b) the jurisdictional disputes about which of two branches of government has final responsibility for defining and resolving the diagnosis of adult or child abuse in divorce, and (c) problems associated with the family court’s use of and referrals to state sponsored/funded clinics by the Judicial Branch. This includes patient’s right to privacy issues; standards of the types and forms of treatment; court-ordered, mandatory treatment; treatment effectiveness evaluations; confidentiality and the human rights issues of those receiving services.
1.) Economic problems of divorcing in Maine. The short story is that it is very expensive, running to thousands of dollars, with courts putting no limits on the charges to citizens from a growing number of ancillary players, in a growing number of questionably effective peripheral services. The growth of these unevaluated “new” services- often court mandated- have become a part of an very expanded, very expensive “divorce industry”. Families are impoverished. Retirement and college funds are emptied. Homes are mortgaged to the hilt. Credit from relatives and families is exhausted. It is an expense with no boundaries and it grows year by year. We have to ask: Is a booming economic expansion of the “divorce industry” retarding investment in other “industries”? The Judicial Branch keeps virtually no data, our group has some limited financial data. However, there is a need to measure the problem, its growth and to propose solutions. Money drained from our economy by the “divorce industry” is money not available for other more productive investments; homes, education and retirement - just to name a few.
2.) Allegations of child or spousal abuse are all too common in contested divorces. Some allegations are real and serious and require appropriate action; other abuse claims are “strategic”, and need investigation and then labeling as such. At the moment, there is all too often a “turf war” between the Children's Protective program (under Human Services) and the Judicial Branch Guardian ad litem program about which entity has the final say in abuse allegations. There are likewise “turf wars” between Guardians ad litem and those trained specialist professionals who assess “dangerousness” and other dysfunctional issues. It all too frequently happens that, if opinions of trained professionals do not concur with a Guardians ad litem opinion, they are frequently ignored in favor of the Guardian ad litem’s more expensive opinion, a continuing investigation by the Guardian ad litem. It should be remembered that Guardians ad litem have only 16-20 hours of training and no supervision when they override the findings of those with more training and supervision. It should also be remembered that continuing to investigate “abuse” generates significant “billable hours” for Guardians ad litem and burdens families with these costs. More important is the question of whether someone with less knowledge, skill and experience will do a better job of danger evaluation for children and families than someone with specialist education, experience and supervision?
3.) State sponsored or financed services and clinics are frequently used as referral sources by Guardians ad litem and by Maine’s courts. The courts keep no statistics about the number of court referrals, which would help to describe (a) the size of their usage, (b) the problems encountered, (c) the outcomes of treatment- both short and long term. What is the impact of court mandated treatment on children and families? Are these court forced referrals doing any measurable good? How do they help? What are we getting for our public money? Are the services requested by courts- such as various untested, unproved behavior change therapies- scientifically grounded? Is the state paying for “experimental” services on court referred children and adults There is also the ethical/human rights issue of court mandated treatment in non-criminal cases. Confidentiality issues and demand for what should be considered privileged information are troubling and, we are told, don’t follow national standards. There are instances of Guardians ad litem sharing this clinical information- without “releases”- with other Guardians ad litem and with unauthorized persons, using the threat of contempt if permission to release information is not granted. It is an area that cries for study and repair.
These are just a few areas that might occupy the scrutiny of a circumscribed Commission to the benefit of our children and families. We would be pleased to discuss further any of these suggested ideas, and we recognize that these suggestions are just conversational openers. It seems important to us to give a more human, rational experience to children and families in divorce, the consumers of service.
Jerome A Collins, MD
CC: Maine Guardian ad litem Alert
To read one view from a parent on the judicial abuse she has suffered. Please follow this link to read "Family Court Abuse - A Parents Perspective"
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