Peter Szymonik
Peter Szymonik ()

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has approved a bill proposing reforms for the state’s guardian ad litem system that would give parents a greater say as to who would represent their children during custody proceedings, as well as new authority to request the removal of a GAL from a case.

But advocates for sweeping changes in family courts, while calling the measure a step in the right direction, said it does not go far enough to address a system they see as fundamentally unfair. Before the Judiciary Committee voted April 2, some lawmakers seemed sympathetic to such concerns and indicated broader changes could be coming in the future. “We’re trying to get our arms around this,” said state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield.

Currently, there are about 1,000 guardians ad litem registered with the state who may be appointed to represent the interests of a minor child or children in a child custody dispute. The GALs are not required to be attorneys, although most are.

Their conduct has come under scrutiny in recent months, as first a state task force and then the Judiciary Committee heard testimony from parents that GALs are prolonging custody disputes, running up huge legal bills and generally acting in an arrogant manner toward parents.

During a public hearing on April 1, several parents who sought to rein in GALs spoke out against the proposed changes, packaged in Raised Bill 494. Some said they would like to see an end to court-mandated GAL appointments, testifying they have spent up to $250,000 for court-appointed guardians, emptying savings and retirement accounts.

“Today, we as parents stand up with righteous indignation in defense of our rights to love our children, without interference of government,” said Michael Nowaski, a parent from New Canaan.

After hearing from the public for 14 hours, the Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a measure that mirrored what some other states have done, but did not go nearly as far. For instance, last summer, Maine joined several states in adding caps on what GALS could charge. The Connecticut legislation would not limit fees.

However, the measure would allow parents and other parties to family matters to choose from a list of five guardians ad litem, instead of having the final choice made entirely by the court.

The measure would also put some added responsibilities onto the Judicial Branch. In addition to making sure that GALs complete an already existing six-week training class, the bill would require the Judicial Branch to provide information to the public on the role and responsibilities of guardians ad litem.

While the bill would not limit how much GALs could charge, it would require them to offer fees on a sliding scale based on the parents’ assets, income and ability to pay.

Another new feature would provide a process, to be determined by the Rules Committee of the Superior Court, which would allow parties to file a motion seeking the removal of a guardian ad litem from their case.

On receiving such a request, a presiding judge would have the option of referring the parties to mediation with a family services officer who is employed by the Judicial Branch. If the complaints about the GAL cannot be resolved in mediation, it will be up to the judge to decide whether to remove the GAL.

Even Chief Justice Chase Rogers has weighed into the discussion, publicly calling for advisory guidelines for when judges should appoint guardians ad litem, as well as calling for a written code of conduct for GALs.

Superior Court Judge Eliot Solomon, who is a member of Judicial Branch’s Commission on Civil Court Alternative Dispute Resolution and its Family Commission, said during the public hearing that the Judicial Branch was not opposed to the changes being considered by the proposed legislation.

Solomon said the vast majority of cases involving GALs are handled without complaints from parents. Under the current system, he said, if parties have a concern about how a guardian ad litem is handling a case, those concerns can be addressed in court. “We are mindful of what the parties are feeling. If I find out about GAL concerns [in court], I’m going to address it,” Solomon said.

State Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, asked if current law requires judges to consider parental concerns about GALs, including requests to remove a GAL. “No statute says that,” Solomon said.

The bill now goes to the full House for a vote. The co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Eric Coleman and Rep. Gerald Fox III, did not respond to messages left seeking comment.

Peter Szymonik, an outspoken advocate for guardian ad litem reform, said the proposed bill “is a step in the right direction.” But he said a petition is being circulated calling for the legislation to also designate GALs as “mandated reporters” required to report allegations or suspicions of child abuse. Currently, mandated reporters include child welfare investigators, teachers and medical personnel. “Under the current law, [GALs] are not obligated to report abuse and neglect of children they are assigned to represent,” Szymonik said. “That simply makes no common sense.”

Another measure suggested by a legislative task force that studied the family courts last year was not included in the bill. That provision stated that when a court assigns an attorney for minor children or a guardian ad litem, that act “would not automatically strip a parent of their legal right to make parenting decisions for their child.”

Szymonik said under the current policy, when a GAL is appointed, a parent cannot make a number of key decisions, including whether to call their children as witnesses in custody cases. “This simple and commonsense addition would offer many of the protections against AMC/GAL abuses which parents and citizens are seeking,” he said.

Rep. Arthur O’Neil, R-Southbury, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill that was approved included what he considered to be many “fairly significant changes.”

Among the changes he found most important were those addressing public concerns that GAL costs were putting a burden on some parents. “If approved, the bill will allow the court to review the costs of the GAL to the parties on a regular basis following the appointment,” he said. •