In response to a lengthy set of recommendations from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts regarding its guardian ad litem program, the Lackawanna County Family Court has abandoned "automatic appointment" of a guardian to custody cases.
Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Patricia Corbett, who oversees the county’s family court and is in charge of the implementation of the AOPC’s recommendations, said a committee — made up entirely of Lackawanna County attorneys — tasked with evaluating the program unanimously agreed the program should do away with the automatic appointment provision.
Corbett said the committee found the requirement was "overly broad" and contributed to the increased workload of Danielle M. Ross, the county’s full-time guardian ad litem.
Corbett said Ross will remain in that role. That role is the product of a policy the AOPC suggested the county re-evaluate. Working full time, Ross is still expected to receive more appointments than other guardians. But, Corbett added, the number of cases in which Ross is tapped will change "dramatically."
Several litigants in the family court system had complained, both publicly and in court filings, that they did not want a guardian appointed to their cases.
The auto-appointment requirement came as part of a September 2008 court order in In re Guardian Ad Litem Procedure, in which the court outlined a five-step evaluation procedure under which Ross would be appointed to cases. The first paragraph listed 13 "indicators," any of which could trigger a guardian’s appointment to a case.
That list included "visitation refusal," lack of communication between the parties, pending criminal charges, allegations of sexual abuse, supervised visitation, domestic instability, relocation and cases involving a "high degree of volatility."
The court’s November 20 order does away with that paragraph, but leaves in place the remaining four steps.
"Essentially, the remaining part of the order gives guidance to the judges and the masters," Corbett said in an interview Monday.
Those components do not deal with the appointment process, however — they touch on things like "building a relationship," the recommendation process, and the GAL conference — and Corbett said the appointments are "going to be made as the court sees fit" going forward.
Corbett said she expected appointments to come in high-conflict cases and those with pro se litigants, though not necessarily all of them.
However, the judge added she anticipated the number of appointments to change "dramatically" in light of the recent order.
"The masters were seeing it as a mandate," Corbett said, referring to the provision.
Ross’ $3,166 per month contract, potentially worth about $38,000 per year, did not change because of the recent order.
Corbett signed another order regarding Ross’ contract on October 15, with the biggest difference between the new contract and Ross’ old one being that the former provides for a monthly rather than annual salary.
At the time, Corbett told The Legal the change was made in order to allow for greater flexibility in case the county decides to make changes to its GAL program over the next year.
In September, Corbett said, the county held a symposium with family lawyers and representatives from the AOPC to assess the various family court programs, including the GAL program.
At the symposium, according to Corbett, a committee of nine family law practitioners was assigned to look more deeply into the AOPC’s 51 recommendations for the GAL program, which has come under public criticism and federal scrutiny in the past year.
One recommendation was for the court to re-evaluate whether it should be assigning the majority of custody cases to Ross.
Another recommendation was for the court and the county to better track payments made to GALs.
Corbett said it was that committee that decided to strike the automatic appointments from the program.
According to one of Corbett’s staffers, the committee consists of the following attorneys: Joseph M. Campolieto of Campolieto & Ruggiero; John P. Bogdanovicz of North Penn Legal Services Inc.; Nancy M. Barrasse; Brenda M. Kobal of Kobal & Frederickson; Kim A. Giombetti; Devin T. Hessmiller Trego of the Barbara J. Hart Justice Center; and Frank T. Blasi of Blasi & Walsh.
One Pennsylvania attorney who has been outspoken about the program since it came under scrutiny said, with the most recent change, the program is "halfway there."
Pennsylvania attorney Lynne Gold-Bikin, the chair of the family law practice at Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby, said the court’s order striking the automatic appointment provision from its policy was a good start, but now "the question is why would you ever have an official guardian ad litem?"
According to Gold-Bikin, the court is running the risk that Ross’ personal leanings may affect a broad range of cases. With a revolving door of guardians ad litem, any such risk is spread out and therefore mitigated.
As a family court veteran in Montgomery County, Gold-Bikin said, "Depending on which courtroom I’m in, I’m going to get a different result."
"Why wouldn’t the same apply to a guardian?" she asked.
As previously reported, federal investigators subpoenaed records related to the guardian ad litem program and sources said investigators had asked questions about Ross’ involvement in the program.
Ross did not return a call requesting comment.