()

Appointed by judges to represent the interests of children in custody disputes, guardians ad litem typically operate below the radar of public opinion. But in recent weeks, they have come under a microscope.

GALs were a focal point of a state task force looking into family court costs. They are primary targets of advocates who say they are upset that custody disputes have become far too expensive for the average person to wage, and that GAL fees reaching $30,000 or more are unconscionable.

They have captured the attention of legislators, some of whom have already expressed determination to increase oversight of GALs. And they have prompted a rare newspaper column by the state’s chief justice, who agrees that some reforms are needed.

Chief Justice Chase Rogers says the state needs to adopt advisory guidelines as to when judges should appoint guardians ad litem; provide a clearer protocol for GAL billing; provide a process for parents to request the removal of a guardian ad litem; and implement a written code of conduct for GALs.

“I disagree with those who say the system is totally broken,” Rogers wrote in the Hartford Courant. “To the contrary, we are fortunate in Connecticut to have extremely capable Family Court judges who work diligently toward one overarching goal to do what is in the best interest of the children.”

However, said Rogers, “it’s not surprising that dissatisfaction with the outcome of some high-conflict Family Court cases has made its way to the General Assembly.”

Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III said the Judicial Branch “stands ready to work with the legislature to address the concerns raised about guardians ad litem. We are confident that the changes will benefit families and, most importantly, be in the best interest of the children.”

Divorce lawyers consider guardians ad litem important tools in the often difficult effort to resolve custody matters. Lawyers representing adults in custody cases often ask judges to appoint GALs and frequently recommend a certain person. The final decision is up to the judge.

According to the state Judicial Branch website, more than 1,000 people — most of them lawyers — are registered to serve as GALs, though members of the legal community say that only about 70 people serve on a regular basis.

As of January 2012, new GALs must take a six-session training course. There, they learn the legal requirements of their assignments. After they are appointed by the court, they meet with the parents to discuss their fees and collect a retainer. They then schedule interviews with teachers, guidance counselors and anyone else who might have knowledge about the child. The advocates also interview doctors and child psychologists who might be familiar with any medical or mental health needs the child has, to help them make a recommendation to the court about a custody plan.

Though the controversy has just recenlty reached the public eye, there have been rumblings of discontent for several years, led by parents who were unhappy with how their custody cases were handled. Among their complaints: Parents have little say when a GAL is appointed; that the same GALs are appointed time and again, creating a too-cozy relationship with judges and lawyers for divorcing adults; GALs deny parents access to their children; and that a GAL’s very involvement prolongs custody proceedings, causing fees to spiral out of control.

Many of the critics turned up to testify at hearings of the Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody, co-chaired by two guardian ad litems who are also attorneys, Sue Cousineau, of Middletown, and Sharon Wicks Dornfeld, of Danbury. In late January the task force released 92 recommendations for changes for the Judicial Branch and legislature to make in family court, many of them focused on the legal expenses and role of guardians ad litem. A majority of the task force recommended capping how much guardians should charge, but they left the amount up to lawmakers.

A faction of the task force released a minority report. That group consisted of two Hartford Democrats — Rep. Minnie Gonzalez and Rep. Edwin Vargas — as well as Jennifer Verranault, who trained as a guardian ad litem but has never worked as one. They suggested that GALs be permitted to charge the divorcing parties no more than $150 an hour and no more than $10,000 for any one case.

Gonzalez was among the most vocal members of the task force, questioning why many GALs routinely charge $300 to $400 an hour and offering a proposal, which was rejected by the majority, that would allow judges to reduce the guardian’s fees when parent’s couldn’t pay.

“We don’t think the majority’s recommendations went far enough,” Vargas said. “The cost is out of control.” She also complains that “only a handful” of GALs handle most of the cases. “There needs to be more oversight.”

Cousineau, one of the task force chairs, devotes much of her practice to being a court-appointed guardian. She said she typically has about 10 cases pending at a time. While a small percentage can take three years — or even more to resolve — and cost as much as $30,000, she said the majority of cases are resolved in one or two meetings.

“In our recommendations, the task force agreed that it costs too much and takes too long to resolve many of these cases,” she said. “But that’s not the fault always of the court or the GAL. If you look at some of these cases that take the longest to resolve, [the divorcing parties] have spent $300,000 in lawyers fees…

“What people need to understand, is the guardians are there to represent the interests of the child. And those interests should not be taken lightly.”

One of the loudest voices in favor of reform has been that of Peter Szymonik of Glastonbury, who is a former member of the executive board at Cummings & Lockwood and who now works as a liaison between business technology executives and the legal and compliance teams at United Healthcare.

Szymonik, who went through a prolonged custody dispute himself, thinks the economic crisis in 2008, and the subsequent need for law firms to boost revenues, led to a rise in guardians ad litem costs. He claims that before the recession, the fee in a typical guardian ad litem case was in the $3,000 to $5,000 range.

Syzmonik leads an organization called CT Guardian Ad Litem Reform, which he says represent hundreds of people who have been involved in custody disputes. Among them, he said, are more than 30 people who have been left “devastated by the problems in the family court system.” Collectively, the group has spend more than $3 million in legal fees, and an additional $1.4 million on guardians ad litem fees, Syzmonik said.

“Almost all of us have lost our homes, lost our jobs, lost our retirement accounts,” he said. “Half of us have either been jailed or threatened with jail, solely for not being able to pay any more.”

Last month, the voices of dissent reached a fever pitch.

In a rare occurrence, Superior Court Judge Leslie Olear, one of 32 state judges who hear primarily family law cases, was nearly voted off the bench. Parents showed up in force to oppose her reconfirmation, partly in protest of the entire family court system and partly because of complaints about Olear’s handling of GAL and child custody matters.

Some of the sharpest criticism came from Vargas. A member of the General Assembly’s Children’s Committee, he testified that the family courts are “crying out for reform. I’m not saying that this judge is the only one that doesn’t deserve reappointment. There are quite a few of them.”

Olear was ultimately approved for a second, eight-year term. But after an unusually close 78-67 vote in the House of Representatives, lawmakers promised public hearings. “The lack of accountability is unacceptable,” said Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison. “This system is broken.”

Reform appears likely, although exactly what form they will take is in flux. The two co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Eric Coleman and Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

A proposed bill calls for increased oversight of guardians ad litem and attorneys for minor children appointed in custody cases. According to the draft legislation, the Office of Chief Public Defender would assume oversight for all guardians ad litem. The oversight system would include establishment of a fee structure, and a review of all complaints alleging violations of those established fees.

Rep. Mae Flexer, a Killingly Democrat and Judiciary Committee member, expects the bill will be raised for discussion before April 4. In the meantime, a public hearing on family law matters is scheduled for March 24.

Another committee member, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, D-Naugatuck, suggested the hearing will be informative. “We have not yet deliberated the proposal,” she said. “I am reserving any [comment], as it would be premature.

And so what do GALs think about the firestorm blazing around them?

Family law attorney Robert Katz of West Hartford, who has been practicing for 31 years, said he’s seen the debate over guardians ad litem “come and go” for decades. “But this is the worst it’s ever been,” Katz said.

He acknowledged the system could benefit from some added regulation. For instance, Katz said, if a lawyer normally charges $400 to represent adults in custody cases, “the hourly rate should be something less” when the lawyer serves as a GAL representing the children’s interests. “There could be some control of that,” he said.

But Katz said that the fact that a small number of guardian ad litems “get most of the work” is not indicative of a corrupt system. “In my mind, there are some top-notch people who do this kind of work,” Katz said. “I tend to go to these people over and over, I don’t feel like experimenting with my clients’ money, so I go back with the same [GALs] who are going to be the best.”

Sarah Stark Oldham, a Westport family law practitioner and president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said complaints about the guardians ad litem being overpaid is unjustified. She said many GALs spend weekend and evening hours working on behalf of the children they represent, often off the clock. “I cannot think of any other professional field where individuals regularly work on an hourly basis, fully disclosed up front, and then routinely do not get paid for the work,” she said.

At the same time, she said, “there are some problems with the system and I am not opposed to most of the recommendations of the task force.” Among those problems, she said, is the ability for a party to have a guardian ad litem removed from a case, due to a conflict of interest, for instance.

Renee Bauer, a Hamden lawyer and guardian ad litem, said the judicial system may be broken, but it’s not because of anything that GALs have done. “This job is thankless,” Bauer said. “We are often ridiculed by one parent or the other, if not both at the same time. We can do no right. We are blamed for being biased. We are blamed for not being responsive enough. We are blamed for profiting from other people’s misery. Yet we continue to take these cases because the children matter most in this work.”•