Members of a state legislative committee on Monday heard from dozens of people who say family court reform is critically needed to regulate how guardians ad litem are used in contentious child custody cases.
The public hearing was held by the Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 494, which would add oversight of court-appointed guardians ad litem, cap the fees they can charge at $150 per hour up to $10,000 per case, and provide parents with a process to have GALs removed from custody cases at their request.
“We’re trying to get our arms around this,” Rep. John Kissell, a member of the committee said, adding that he and his fellow members are taking the concerns seriously
The use of GALs, who are appointed to represent the interest of the children in custody matters, has been brought to the forefront of public discourse in recent weeks, pushed by calls for reform from advocates who are upset that custody disputes have become too expensive for average-income families to wage. 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.
A legislative measure now before lawmakers could do just that, although advocates have questioned whether the pending bill will go far enough. Some have called for the outright ban on the use of guardians ad litem, questioning why the Department of Children and Families can’t take over the responsibility of making appearances on behalf of children in child custody cases.
The Judiciary Committee heard testimony mostly from parents who have been impacted by the family court system. Many of those parents shared horror stories of high legal bills and lost custody of children which they blamed directly on GALs.
Among those who testified, was Michael Nowacki of New Canaan, who said guardians fees were too high, and his child custody case ate deep into savings accounts, to the tune of $250,000.
“It is wrong to make us pay for an unregulated service, it’s criminal conduct,” Nowacki said. “Respect our rights to love our children without interference of government.”
Still in the draft stages, the bill would allow judges to order fees for the guardians ad litem and court-appointed children’s attorneys to be calculated on a sliding scale basis, after taking into account the income and assets of the parents. The bill would also prohibit forcing parents to pay for guardians ad litem out of their children’s college savings accounts.
Superior Court Judge Elliot Solomon, who serves as the co-chair of the Judicial Branch’s Access to Justice Commission and as a member of the Commission on Civil Court Alternative Dispute Resolution and the Family Commission, said the Judicial Branch has not expressed opposition to the proposals.
Addressing the committee, Solomon said the vast majority of cases involving GALs are handled without complaints to the court. He suggested that under the current system, if the 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,” Solomon said. “If I find out about GAL concerns [in court] I’m going to address it,” Solomon said.
State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked the judge if the law requires them to consider concerns about GAL’s to be addressed, including a removal of the GAL at the request of the parties. Solomon said no such law exists. “No statute says that,” he said.
During the hearing, the members of the committee asked questions of those who spoke. One of the most outspoken was Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, who has been advocating for reform. When one parent testified about problems with a guardian ad litem’s recommendations that he said led to the loss custody of his children, Gonzalez told him, “We’re going to see what we can do to change that.”