Increasingly angry tactics have been pervading the public inquiry into family court custody reform, triggering a fight-or-flight response from top members of the family bar.
Some are ready to throw in the towel, or at least take a long time out.
Dozens of lawyers who work as guardians ad litem (GALs) or attorneys for minor children are in the process of withdrawing their representation, or are no longer accepting such appointments.
For example, in the past 30 days, Steven Dembo, of Hartford’s Berman, Bourns, Aaron & Dembo, has asked to withdraw from four of his eight guardian ad litem appointments. The requests are due in part to increasing attacks of the work done by guardians ad litem on Internet websites and Facebook pages highlighting problems in Connecticut’s family courts.
At the Statewide Grievance Committee offices in East Hartford, the pace of grievances against family court guardians ad litem has risen to about three new complaints per week. “Three a week is outrageous,” said Geraldine Ficarra, of the Essex firm of Peck & Ficarra. Michael Bowler, bar counsel for the committee, said grievances are not tracked by law practice area, and are not public before actionable cause is found.
Ficarra represents a Bloomfield woman in a high-conflict divorce case, Stevens v. Stevens. In that case, the guardian ad litem, Hartford lawyer Mary Bergamini, was the subject of a highly publicized grievance filing by Eric Stevens, accompanied by Hartford Democratic state representatives Minnie Gonzalez and Angel Arce.
On March 14, Bergamini asked to withdraw from the case in Hartford Superior Court. Bergammi said she’s made no decision on whether she will take additional GAL assignments in the future.
Other lawyers and law firms that are bowing out of the court-appointed work for the time being include Glastonbury-based Brown, Paindiris & Scott, Budlong & Barrett in Hartford, Jeffrey Mickelson in Hartford, and Barry Armata.
“In this atmosphere, really important issues are not being heard, due to the truly vicious nature of the attacks that are going on,” said Barbara Aaron, of Berman, Bourns. She and her firm focus on low-impact alternatives to adversarial litigation.
Another lawyer interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous, out of fear for his family’s safety. “I’ve had a death threat before, many years ago,” in connection with family court representation. “My family doesn’t need this.”
One of the higher-profile blogs involved in the custody firestorm is DivorceInConnecticut, by Catherine Sloper. Another hub is the Facebook page PAinCT, which stands for Parental Alienation in Connecticut.
Sloper, in an email, commented, “I know some attorneys are characterizing us as ‘bitter’ and all that, but my best guess is that the work we are doing will result in a considerable increase in the high quality of GAL performance and in better outcomes for families who go through the family court system and, of course, that is what we are all trying to achieve. When it comes to those GALs who commit billing fraud and never see their child clients, we need a mechanism to simply identify and eliminate those kinds of individuals. That is just simply wrong.”
Last August, Hartford lawyer Campbell Barrett, Dembo and four “John Doe” coconspirators were the targets of a Connecticut U.S. District Court case alleging civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with a business relationship for their actions in court.
The plaintiff is Colleen Kerwick Nichairmhaic, an Irish-born New York lawyer and actress who also lists an Avon law firm address. She claims emotional injury and a lost law firm job as a result of “bullish” behavior by her ex-husband’s lawyers in family court, and their alleged attempts to have her deported or deemed mentally ill.
Sharon Dornfeld, a Danbury lawyer whose practice is limited to GAL work and is serving as an attorney for the minor child [AMC], is a cochairwoman of the legislative Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children, which produced a report Jan. 31.
It began meeting in October, with its often-contentious proceedings broadcast on CT-N, the state government network. In December, her car tire was slashed while parked at the Danbury courthouse.
“I can’t say it was related to the work of the task force,” she said. But in her more than 25 years of practice concentrated in the custody field, “I have never seen the atmosphere this hostile, with such concerted and coordinated attacks.”
One lawyer, who requested anonymity, said he decided he had to withdraw from guardian ad litem cases on seeing the change in the atmosphere in the courtroom when Rep. Gonzalez and a group of custody reform activists entered the courtroom and sat down.
Rep. Gonzalez has been sitting in on the proceedings in the courtroom of Middlesex Superior Court Judge Leslie Olear, who narrowly survived a confirmation hearing last month after heavy opposition from custody reform activists.
The lawyer’s client noticed an immediate change in the judge’s demeanor. “What just happened?” the client asked. It was clear, the lawyer said, that the presence of the state lawmaker and the reformers cast a chill over the courtroom. The judge, the lawyer said, denied being intimidated.
But it was this new confrontationalism that prompted the lawyer to start withdrawing from GAL assignments, and to stop taking new ones. Olear’s close call at the Legislature is highly alarming to seasoned court observers.
C. Ian McLachlan, a former Supreme Court justice who’s now in private practice, sees real reason for concern as the reform battle grows increasingly combative.
“This is, in my view, a serious threat to judicial independence,” he said. “As [a lawmaker] said about Judge Olear, ‘well, she’s not a bad judge, but we want to send a message.’ You can’t be doing that. You want judges to make the best decision they can make. If they make a mistake, that’s why we have appellate courts.”
An atmosphere of intimidation is counter-effective, McLachlan said. “You don’t want them to be making a decision, or worse, not making decisions, because they’re afraid that it’s going to cost them their job.”
He was troubled at the image of Rep. Gonzalez monitoring Judge Olear’s courtroom. “The question is, in my view, is that an impingement on the separation of powers? She’s apparently trying to solicit support even after the fact for God knows what.”
Gonzalez confirmed that she and other state lawmakers were watching judges on the bench. “It’s not just Judge Olear. I’m going to Hartford, Middlesex, courtrooms around the state,” she said in an interview.
And as for concern about separation-of-powers issues? “If it comes to that, I am for it. I don’t think we need guardians at litem at all. My constituents have been having to pay $75,000, $100,000 and more for GAL representation, just so that the people in the system can make money. If the court system is not working, we have to fix it.”
Gonzalez was a member of the task force, and along with Rep. Vargas, frequently disagreed with the two lawyer cochairwomen, Dornfeld and Sue A. Cousineau, both of whom work as GALs.
Dornfeld said that the Legislature has agreed to two “concept” bills that may contain recommendations from the task force’s 90-plus item list of recommendations, or even from the minority report.
“The Task Force made 37 recommendations by consensus and an additional 30 by majority vote. There’s a lot to choose from, and there were two separate minority reports,” she told The Law Tribune. Dornfeld said the likely topics for new legislation would be a greater emphasis on shared custody, limits on GAL fees, and some procedures where parents could seek review or removal of a GAL.
The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a public hearing on family court matters on March 24.•
Thomas B. Scheffey is a former senior writer at the Connecticut Law Tribune. He’s now a member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board.