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Emotions Run High At Hearing on Guardian Ad Litems

by Hugh McQuaid | Apr 1, 2014 6:00am
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Courts, Ethics, Legal

Hugh McQuaid photo

Jean-Pierre Bolat, a divorced father of three from Wallingford

Legislation changing how child custody cases are handled in Connecticut courts drew emotional testimony Monday from parents who feel wronged by the people the court assigns to represent their children.

The bill involves “guardians ad litem” who are assigned to represent the interest of minors in contentious custody battles. Last year, the legislature created a task force to study the system, which critics say lacks oversight and often leads to soaring legal expenses for parents. Some of the group’s recommendations were incorporated in the legislation, which allows parents to seek the removal of a guardian.

But some of the parents in the hearing room Monday said the bill does not go far enough because it does not create an oversight mechanism for GALs and it does not cap how much money they can earn working on individual cases.

During the hearing, a comment from one parent elicited applause from those in the audience. Sen. Eric Coleman, the committee’s co-chairman, asked those in attendance to refrain from clapping. When it was his turn to testify, Jean-Pierre Bolat, a divorced father of three from Wallingford, admitted to starting the applause.

“There is a well of emotion in this room because when children are at stake there is a huge well of emotion,” Bolat said. “I’d like to use a little of my time . . . to applaud all of the people who had the courage to come here today.”

Bolat got his applause and another warning from committee leadership. Audience participation can be common problem during emotionally charged hearings. But Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, urged his colleagues to be patient with the upset parents. He said parents are frequently alienated by the process.

Carter said he remembers the first time he had a constituent bring the issue up to him.

“I thought she was off her rocker. She was sending me so much information that I couldn’t absorb it. I finally spoke to her, I sat down and got to know her,” he said. “I found out that this group of people may appear nuts to us. You know why? Because they’ve lost their kids. Because they’re victims of what they feel like is an unfair system.”

Many of the parents believe the family court system fosters prolonged custody battles for the benefit of the guardians and consultants affiliated with the court. Some reported GAL bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Colleen Buden told the committee that “parents are treated like criminals” in family court.

“Almost all the cases are the same. It’s the Connecticut family court playbook — the targeted parent is accused of having a mental illness. At that point the targeted parent hires professionals to fend of the allegations but once you clear one allegation along comes another. It’s endless. Most allegations come from the guardian ad litem,” she said.

However, some told lawmakers that the guardians have gotten a bad rap. Sharon Wicks Dornfeld, a Danbury attorney who has worked as a guardian ad litem for the last 25 years, said that “the vast majority” of GALs work hard to do their very best for the children they represent.

“I hope I am never the reason a case is delayed,” she said.

Hugh McQuaid photo

Sharon Wicks Dornfeld, a Danbury attorney who has worked as a guardian ad litem for the last 25 years

Dornfeld said that in more than 90 percent of cases, the custody of children is worked out between parents in a more amicable agreement. She said GALs typically come into play in the small percentage of remaining “higher conflict” cases.

“Those higher conflict cases obviously require a higher level of services, more services require more time, and typically involve the assistance of a guardian ad litem or attorney for minor children in order to identify, promote, and protect the children through the process,” she said.

Dornfeld served on the legislative task force that made recommendations in January. Rep. Edwin Vargas, a Hartford Democrat who also was a member of the task force, suggested that lawmakers consider scrapping the GAL system entirely.

“We need to reform this guardian ad litem system. Either that or we do away with it completely,” he said. “At a minimum we need a code of conduct, we need supervision of the guardian ad litems if we’re going to keep them. We need evaluations. We need to make sure they don’t have absolute immunity.”

Vargas said the mechanisms in place for parents to contest the guardians are not working and some families were being billed at such high rates that parents are draining their savings trying to pay for the services.

“If there’s a bleeding of the finances, I don’t believe that’s in the best interest of the child, especially if the kid’s college fund is being depleted or if the family winds up losing the house,” he said.

The Judiciary Committee has until Wednesday to forward the bill to the Senate.

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(4) Comments

posted by: Historian | April 1, 2014  1:15pm

It would be no breach of privacy if a statistical study was done of the reasons for this form of litigation ie: claims of child abuse, mental illness, failure to pay child support, etc etc, and to do a follow up study of cases finalized five and ten years ago to find out what the end results were.
  Divorce is essentially about three things - access to children, assets and revenge. It is a major part of American Civil law and practice. It also has never been studied as to it’s “success”.

posted by: Hector Morera | April 1, 2014  2:31pm

Good job JP speaking out. Made a shirt last night for you.  You asked for it and you’re getting.

posted by: rock0717 | April 3, 2014  9:16am

I can tell you from experience that the GAL that was “assigned” to our custody case was part of the problem. Both my kid’s mother and I are actually good parents. The GAL assigned was basically best friends with the opposing counsel, and together they kept us in the court system for almost 3 years (and roughly $25,000 and a foreclosure later). Only when I forced a trial did our child get some very good time with her dad. You want to end parents fighting over kids and lawyers destroying families? Take the “fight” out of the equation. Unless one parent is seriously abusive or disfunctional then it should be a 50/50 split. Kids NEED both parents as equally as possible. And to all the disheartened dads out there - Don’t ever give up on your kids. They need you just as much as Mom. No excuse.

posted by: DennyWally | April 4, 2014  2:13am

Mr. Jean-Pierre Bolat:

Thank you for having the courage to testify. The entire divorce court system and GAL process is a cottage industry that makes a lot of people rich and leaves a lot of families broken. I was in NY divorce court and my GAL bill was more than $20,000. I ultimately filed for bankruptcy. I suspect that the only way the process ever improves is to shine a bright light on it. We need to use the web to be able to review GAL, Judges and Divorce Attorneys; appealing to the state legilatures is nobel but a long and difficult journey. The state legilatures are full of attorneys and connected officials - they nominate and approve the judges.

I was going to start a website to review GALs and judges, but was so emotionally drained after my divorce that I felt it was better to just walk away. And that is what happens to most people - they just want to forget the entire experience. The GAL, Judges and Divorce Attorneys realize this and are able to prey on newcomers to the divorce system because there is no central repository of what has happened to people like you and me.