Lawmakers and parents call for child custody reforms

Hartford - Legislators and parents testified during a Judiciary Committee public hearing Monday against a family court practice that requires divorcing couples who strongly disagree on child custody matters to have a guardian ad litem and, in some cases, an attorney for their minor children.

Those testifying said they had paid up to $250,000 for these services, while two Connecticut Superior Court judges said there were many opportunities for families in need to pay a state rate for an attorney or have a pro bono attorney. The judges said the guardians were needed to serve as the "eyes and ears" of judges. Guardians are instructed to interview people close to the child - including the parents, the child's teachers and physicians - and are supposed to advocate for the child's best interest.

An attorney for a minor child is involved in a court case when the child disagrees with the guardian, and therefore the attorney advocates for what the child wants, whether or not it is in the child's best interest.

The bill being debated, Senate Bill 494, would maintain the guardian and minor child attorney system but would provide parents or parties to family matters with five guardians or attorneys to choose from instead of one. It would require the judicial branch to provide information on the role of guardians and attorneys.

The bill also would provide the parties with the ability to remove an attorney or guardian from a court case. It would require court-appointed guardians and attorneys to charge fees on a sliding scale, based on income and assets of the parties involved.

"Today, we as parents stand up with righteous indignation in defense of our rights to love our children without the interference of government," said Michael J. Nowaski of New Canaan, who opposed the bill and the current system.

Nowaski said he has lost custody of his daughter because the attorney who was supposed to be representing his daughter didn't even consult her. He said he can see her only under supervision and is not allowed to text or email her.

"What kind of rights do I have? None," Nowaski said.

Donna Marsico said that she hardly has been able to see her granddaughter and that the court-appointed guardian ad litem has not helped.

"In my opinion, he has ignored my plea to aid in visitation of my grandchildren," Marsico said.

The guardian system breeds conflict and controversy among families, and the whole program should be "scrapped," state Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, said.

"They are supposed to go investigate the case, investigate the families, go and ask doctors, teachers, all that, and 98, 99 percent of the cases, that doesn't happen," committee member state Rep. Minnie Gonzales, D-Hartford, said. "They don't do their job, but they come up with a bill - $100,000, $150,000, $200,000, $75,000 - which is crazy."

Then the judge takes the guardian's recommendation, and there is no one checking on the guardian's work, she said.

Superior Court Judge Elliot N. Solomon said he instructs guardians to complete their work and, if they don't, he removes them from the case. But he said there is no statute that requires him to remove the guardian from the case.

Superior Court Judge Patrick L. Carroll III said although the guardian cases in his and Solomon's courtrooms have been decided fairly, the judiciary system could support changes to the guardian and minor child attorney system. However, there would need to be modifications to the current bill, he said.

The provision that would allow parents or parties to remove their guardian and select a new one would need limits, he said. He said they suggested requiring the request for removal of a guardian to be based on an identified deficiency or impropriety instead of because the parent didn't agree with a guardian's decision.

Carter and Gonzales said the state Department of Children and Families - and its licensed, clinical social workers - could be the department determining who should have custody of the children instead of costly attorneys.

State Rep. Edwin Vargas said there needed to be a code of ethics, compensation caps, an independent investigative committee, evaluations and ways to ensure the guardians don't have immunity from criminal conduct.

"Without these minimal reforms, we as legislators can only hold the empowering judges accountable," Vargas said.

One 25-year-old woman who had been assigned a guardian ad litem when she was 11 years old and her parents were getting divorced said she supported the program.

Kaylah W. Culp said her parents' divorce was a "he said, she said disaster." She said that the guardian allowed their side to be told by an unbiased third party and that her father, who passed away from alcoholism, would have been one of the parents calling the system unfair.

"My sister and I truly felt blessed to have a (guardian ad litem) appointed to us so we had a chance to be heard," Culp said.

j.somers@theday.com

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