Courts will frequently add a 'Guardian ad litem' to this volatile mix, and the total picture can disintegrate further. A 'Guardian ad litem' is usually a lawyer or mental health professional, who works for the judge in the case, collecting data about the case that may not be easily accessible to the judge, such as home circumstances, parenting skills, health, education and mental health issues. All of this is to be carried out "in the child's best interest". It is a delicate balancing act, actively scrutinized by all the players, and, the stakes are extremely high - the child or children, who are up for varying custody arrangements.
Families involved with GALs, as they are called, have been very vocally unhappy with oversight of the Maine GAL program for years. A nationally-respected, 2006 OPEGA Performance Audit of Maine GALs, did a careful analysis and made a series of recommendations aimed at program correction. It was largely tabled by the Judicial Branch. In 2013, Senator David Dutremble and many GAL victims decided to legislate reform of the GAL program. They used the 2006 OPEGA Guardian ad litem Report as the basis for Chapter 406, a law to improve the functioning of GALs with respect to children. It involved many willing workers who were GAL program victims and lots of bipartisan legislative support - all the way the Governor. There was huge excitement and a great sense of accomplishment on the part of everyone who worked for the bill/law. After the bill was signed into law in the late Spring of 2013, it went to the Judicial Branch for implementation.
In the intervening time since 2013, the rumors about the fate of 2013, Chapter 406 have not been reassuring. Serious consumer problems continue under the new law. As required by the law, an extensive report on the program's progress was given to the Judiciary Committee by Chief Judge, Mary Kelly about 2 weeks ago. This was followed promptly with an equally extensive rebuttal to the Kelly Report by Maine Guardian ad litem Alert (MeGAL).
Here are a few of the concerns in our report.
The recent Kelly Report doesn't answer public questions: How are the various changes instituted by the Judicial Branch working? Are Consumers satisfied? Is there yet and oversight/ supervision of Guardians ad litem? If so, how? Is there any data to support public evaluation?
Judge Kelly's review ignores the important 2006 OPEGA Audit of Maine GALs, as a baseline measurement with which to gauge change. OPEGA spelled out: "Here are the GAL problems - and here's what needs to be done to correct them!" To many consumers, the GAL problems in 2017 don't look too different from 2006. The significant issues for this program continue to be the same: no managerial "oversight" of GALs., no enforcement of written changes dealing with the GAL role, no quality assurance and a complaint procedure that is not "user-friendly."
The cornerstone of the recent Judicial Branch report is a detailed presentation of the new Guardian ad litem complaint procedure. This opaque, written procedure is handled exclusively by a mail exchanges of letters. It is the only avenue for enforcement of "oversight". It is coupled with a belief that judges appointing a Guardian ad litem exercise the best "oversight" of Guardians ad litem. It is a highly disputable concept, entangled in local Bench-Bar politics and power struggles - and it would require a judge to admit bad judgement in an appointment, calling attention to bad judgement in other decisions. Complaint procedures, which dismisses 100% of cases, seems highly suspect as oversight or quality assurance; particularly, when there is no other corrective action imposed. It raises the question: Doesn't the public deserve better? The complaint procedure is neither useful nor user-friendly.
It is time for the legislature to ask for an OPEGA audit, of the GAL program. An audit would analyze problems and lay-out a blueprint for change. Judge Mary Kelly could show leadership by joining in the call for OPEGA to evaluate her service.
Jerome A Collins
This piece ran in the Portland Press Herald on 03/10/2017 and may be found by following this link:
Empty promises: Guardian ad litem reform in hands of Judicial Branch