On Friday, April 25, 2014, both houses of Connecticut’s legislature unanimously approved a bill that restricts judges in family court matters. Parent who have been unfairly denied access to their children and bankrupted by the court turned out in large numbers to testify in favor of the legislation. Given that judges and divorce lawyers fought hard against the measure, this can only be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the way family court operates today in Connecticut.
The bill passed on April 25 deals with technical issues associated with the court appointed Guardians Ad Litem (GALs). The issues generating the no confidence vote centered on:
1. Poor training. GALs require only 30 hours of training. No law degree, no study of child behavior, no other experience with children.
2. No accountability. As a practical matter, parents paying the bills could not fire the GAL! And, GALs have immunity from law suits.
3. Some GAL’s had few meetings with children and refused to meet with those intimately involved with the children’s lives.
4. Excessive pay. Hourly rates were reported in the $200-$850 range and some total billings were in excess of $20,000 per year. Some testimony suggested that GALs are more interested in the pay than in the welfare of children. Parents can be jailed for failure to pay GALs.
5. In some cases, getting a high paying GAL assignment required a cozy relationship with an attorney representing one side of the custody case.
The legislation that will take effect in October, SB 494, addresses most of the complaints listed above. Specifically, it allows parents to agree on a GAL or an attorney for the minor child (AMC) from a list of fifteen candidates proposed by the judge. If they can’t agree, and the judge appoints a GAL, then this decision is appealable. Most importantly, the judge is required, within 21 days, to issue an order clarifying the work to be done by the GAL or AMC, to set forth the fee schedule and to set deadlines on the completion of that work.
This increase in transparency strongly discourages a cozy money-making relationship between GAL’s and others in the court system. A judge needs to refer to one or more of 16 factors defining the “best interests of the child” when appointing a GAL/AMC and the GAL/AMC will be accountable for using these 16 factors when they represent a child.
Is this real reform or is it an effort to appease advocates for reform? We believe that it represents an important first step towards reform, and that it signals a new direction in the relationship between the legislature and family court officials. For one thing, the judiciary tried to head off the legislation by promising internal court reforms. For another, judges and court insiders lobbied hard to prevent any legislative interference with their activities. Thirdly, “John McKinney, the Republican leader of the state Senate said the bill is a modest first step towards fixing a system ‘that has fallen apart’ (Hartford Courant, Saturday, April 29, 2014, page B4).” Finally, the unanimous vote in a legislature where many members are lawyers provides a compelling indication that family court system must change.
Those advocating for reform include a large, vocal group of parents, grandparents and families known as the Coalition for Connecticut Family Court Reform. Jennifer Verraneault, a GAL based in New Haven and member of a task force studying the issue, has emerged as the leader of this group. Two formally organized groups support broad reforms designed to reduce conflict in custody cases and increase involvement of both parents unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect: the Shared Parenting Council of Connecticut (SPC) and the National Parents Organization (NPO).
Rep. Gonzalez embraced the need for family court reform, even at the beginning of the process when she was ridiculed as a radical. After the unanimous vote, senators and representatives thanked Rep. Gonzalez for not giving up on the legislation. Congratulations and hugs rewarded her hard work and dedication to the legislation.
This legislation points towards a sea change in Connecticut family law. For the first time, the legislature has substantially restricted the actions of family court judges, imposing specific limits on how they act. Prior to this, judges had broad latitude to determine vaguely defined “best interests of the child,” and this often resulted in marginalizing one parent, as well as fostering greater legal dispute. A small change embedded in the new legislation may have broad consequences: in any case, even one not involving a GAL or AMC, judges are now required to articulate which of the 16 factors (or possibly some other consideration) they use when determining the best interests of the child.
A new direction was set by the Connecticut legislature on April 25, but much work still needs to be done to ensure that children are not arbitrarily deprived of access to a capable parent, or disadvantaged financially by the excessive cost of a custody dispute. The SPC and NPO have expressed a willingness to meet with family court officials to hammer out further improvements in the family court system.
The full text of SB 494 can be found at: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2014/amd/S/2014SB-00494-R00SA-AMD.htm