United Kingdom Implements Historic Measures to Improve Safety in Family Court for Abuse Victims and Their Children

“Let’s make sure children’s safety is at the heart of all decisions made by the family courts…” Katie Ghose, Chief Executive, “Women’s Aid” 

(United Kingdom: October 2017) The implementation of  Practice Direction 12J (Domestic Abuse) on October 2, 2017, will provide much needed changes in family court to better protect survivors of domestic abuse and their children by defining what a court is required to do “in any case in which it is alleged or admitted, or there is other reason to believe, that the child or a party has experienced domestic abuse perpetrated by another party or that there is a risk of such abuse“.

Practice Direction 12J requires judges to take certain actions in cases where domestic abuse or child abuse allegations are raised. The value of Practice Direction 12J has been embraced because of the potential to save lives; despite the additional work it may impose on family court judges and clerks.

MPs from all political parties were united in pressing the government to
transform the family court system and ensure that perpetrators can no
longer use family courts to continue abusing women and children...” (“Child First: One Year On”, Women’s Aid”).

Though these measures affect the UK only – these mandated changes are such a tremendous step to improving family court for survivors of abuse and their children, that they are certainly worthy of consideration for other family law courts, worldwide. 

An Outline – Practice Direction 12J (Domestic Abuse): 

  • The court presumes the role of both parents in a child’s life is in their best interest unless there is evidence to the contrary. 
  • Expands the definition of Domestic Abuse to include psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional, or culturally specific abuse as well as coercive and controlling behavior. Culturally specific forms of abuse include, but are not limited to, forced marriage, child marriage, honour-based violence, dowry-related abuse and marriage abandonment.
  • The court must make safety a priority in cases involving abuse for both the child and for the parent whom the child is living with. Custody and visitation orders should not expose either to further harm.
  • The court cannot compel parties to participate in resolution or conciliation efforts which are not suitable or not safe.
  • If the court is advised by any party, or by CPS or social services, that there is a need for special arrangements to protect the party or child during proceedings, the court must ensure proper arrangements until no longer necessary.
  • When considering allegations of domestic abuse or child abuse in proceedings, family court judges must follow specific recommendations. Before issuing a custody or visitation order, the court must explain why contact ordered does not pose a risk to the child and is in the child’s best interest.
  • Specific practices are mandated for courts when handling cases of domestic abuse or child abuse when findings of abuse are substantiated, or allegations are admitted. “The court should make an order for contact only if it is satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living can, as far as possible, be secured before during and after contact, and that the parent with whom the child is living will not be subjected to further domestic abuse by the other parent…”

Women’s Aid, a collective comprised of a group of charities across England working together to end domestic abuse against women and children, was instrumental in the passage of Practice Direction 12J. Women’s Aid worked diligently to raise public awareness of the impact of domestic abuse on children, and raise awareness of the need for changes in family court to prevent unsafe custody and visitation decisions. Raising awareness was crucial to garnering support from the community, and from lawmakers, needed to implement what became Practice Direction 12J.

In January 2016, Women’s Aid launched a major campaign Child First to make the family court process safer for victims of abuse and their children. Recommendations suggested by Child First were later adopted into Practice Direction 12J. Child First is motivated by a report conducted by Women’s Aid that details, over a 10 year period, the tragic stories of 19 children and 2 women intentionally killed in situations relating to parent contact with an abuser. Of these cases, there were 12 cases of child murder that resulted after the family court arranged contact with the abuser.  Sadly, less than a year after the report was released, another child was murdered – bringing the number up to 20. Women’s Aid argued these deaths were avoidable, that family court failed to recognize (or dismissed) concerns of domestic abuse, and failed to take measures to protect victims contributing to further harm.

Women’s Aid is now fighting to pass a measure to require compulsory training to all judges on domestic abuse, how it manifests post separation, and training regarding the devastating effect of abuse on children. With improved training, judges will be better able to identify and understand domestic abuse – and be better prepared to handle cases involving abuse; including issuing orders that truly uphold the best interests of children.

The efforts of Women’s Aid is inspiring for all – parents, advocates, professionals, politicians, etc – to draw strength, and ideas, from when considering how we can impact positive change, or press for reform in the effort to prevent and end domestic abuse in our communities. And inspiring in our own efforts to improve the systemic responses to abuse (family court and beyond).

The call to action is urgent – too many abuse victims, and their children, are being further abused, and even killed, because of family court failures. The children who survive being court ordered into contact or custody with an abuser suffer lifelong physical and emotional scars. Sadly some of these child survivors contemplate suicide, and some succeed in taking their lives. As Women’s Aid has shown, these abuses and deaths are entirely preventable.

We, in America, look across the ocean towards the UK and see that family court reform is possible… and just like an ocean, sometimes our efforts seem like a ripple, too small to make a difference. But the passage of the historic Practice Direction 12J has shown us that no ripple is ever insignificant, indeed, it these ripples that push the ocean, causing sweeping change from sea to shore.

Sources: 

New family court guidance is a major win for children and survivors of domestic abuse

President of Family Division circular: Practice Direction PD12J – Domestic Abuse

Women’s Aid launches Nineteen Child Homicides report and Child First campaign

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Testimony: Guardian ad Litem is Ineffective and Damaging, Escalates Conflict in Family Court

Public comment given at the Auditor’s Roundtable on the Minnesota Guardian ad Litem program, published with permission.

If anyone else would like to publish their thoughts (you can remain anonymous) please leave a comment and we will include it. Thank-you!

Testimony from the State Auditor’s Roundtable of the MN Guardian ad Litem Program – 5/15/2017

Public Comment:

I am here as a domestic violence survivor, and a mother, who has spent the last 11 years of my life involved in family court. If a GAL NOT been appointed to my case, it would have been resolved long ago, and my children would be protected from abuse.

The GAL program we currently have is terribly ineffective, abusive, damaging and does not in any way address the best interests of children. Yes, there are high-performing and dedicated GALs. I applaud their work. But too many cases exist concerning GAL misconduct, and recommendations that hurt children. Judges are issuing orders based on incomplete or inaccurate information presented by GALs, and then adopt their recommendations to the detriment of children. As a result, abusive, unfit parents are gaining custody of children at alarming rates. Children are being abused, traumatized and negatively impacted for the rest of their lives due to the failures in the GAL program. Many of these children become suicidal. Other children attempt to run away. The GAL program is failing to protect children and is contributing to escalated conflict in family court.

My story is an example of this. In 2006, I became homeless with two children after being assaulted by my ex. The abuse escalated after I left. He even had my cat euthanized and took pleasure in killing something I loved. But that was nothing compared to the battlefield I would find myself in when the abuser filed for sole custody and Jamie Manning was appointed as GAL. Jamie worked to advocate for the abuser – NOT the children. Her reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of my children resulted in both children being physically and emotionally abused after being placed in the custody of an identified abuser. Jamie also worked to remove me from the lives of my children. Every day I grieve the loss of my children. I didn’t even get to see them on Mother’s Day.

Despite overwhelming evidence of abuse, Jamie Manning worked to give the abuser SOLE custody. The abuse continued after my son was put into the care of his father, he grew despondent when no one would listen to his cries for help. At age 7 he tried to jump out of a window. The police and Children’s Crisis responded, admitted him to the hospital. Before my son could get the he needed, Jamie pressured the hospital to immediately release my son and put him back into the care of his abusive father; where he lives today.

Laurie Kusek, Minnesota Guardian ad Litem Program District Manager, 4th Judicial District

I filed a complaint against Jamie Manning with the Program Manager, Laurie Kusek, who never responded. I filed a motion with the judge to have Jamie removed. After filing my motion, Jamie was given an attorney, Nancy Moehler, who aggressively defended her in court. As a pro se client I barely understood the legal system and now was battling two sets of attorneys. The judge chastised me for complaining about Jamie, and dismissed my motion. Jamie retaliated against me by forcing me into supervised visitation. When the supervisors determined that I am an appropriate parent and do not need services, Jamie limited contact with my children to 1 visit a month with no hope for increased time. The GAL Board has been made aware of numerous complaints against Jamie Manning and refuses to take action. So Jamie continues to be appointed to other cases and more children are being hurt.

Based on my experience along with research I have done, here are a few suggestions to improve the GAL program…

– Develop an annual GAL scorecard (that is published publicly)

– Include opportunities for public feedback when measuring outcomes in the GAL program.

– Create a central file to log and track complaints against GALs.

– Modify the mandated duties of a GAL to include a Code of Conduct. Include Conduct Training for GALs

– Similar to the Board on Judicial Standards, create an independent oversight board with authority to investigate GAL complaints and recommend disciplinary action

– Implement a human services model of management in the GAL program.

In Minnesota, GALs are treated as independent contractors in family law. The current system offers little oversight, and relies on family court judges to “police” GALs.

The current system also engages the GAL in the adversarial court process and demands that the GAL take a side… it is easy then for the GAL to overstep their boundaries, and lose the focus of their job: which is the children. A human service model of management is better suited to the GAL program because it keeps the focus on the child and is compatible with the multi-disciplinary approach recommended by the NCSC (National Center for State Courts).

Assessment of the Minnesota GAL Progam (2017) NCSC

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There is still time to provide written comments concerning the Guardian ad Litem Program!  

From an e-mail from Caitlin Badger, who is on the GAL audit team, ” It would be most helpful to us to have all comments submitted by the beginning of October, but we are happy to hear from people for the remainder of the calendar year (2017).”

PLEASE get the word out so people can submit concerns, or add any other feedback.

Contact Jodi Munson Rodríguez, program evaluation manager by e-mail at: jodi.rodriguez@state.mn.us

Or, Caitlin Badger, EvaluatorCaitlin.Badger@state.mn.us

Posted in Child Abuse, Family Court, Guardian ad Litem, Jamie L. Manning, Parents in Family Court | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Guardian ad Litem Program Failing to Protect Children, Endangering Victims of Domestic Violence

Public comment given at the Auditor’s Roundtable on the Minnesota Guardian ad Litem program, published with permission.

If anyone else would like to publish their thoughts (you can remain anonymous) please leave a comment, and we will include it. Thank-you!

Testimony from the State Auditor’s Roundtable of the MN Guardian ad Litem Program – 5/15/2017

Public Comment:

Over the years I worked with many protective parents, mothers and fathers, negatively impacted by failures existing in Family Court. A common complaint is that Guardian ad Litems minimize, ignore or even cover up abuse when making recommendations for custody or visitation.

Domestic violence is prevalent in society, and yet many Guardians seem to ignore its existence. GALs often engage in victim blaming and do not hold perpetrators accountable. Consider this – the Department of Justice’s 10 year study on non-fatal domestic violence found that 21% of all crime is domestic violence related. A separate study reports that child maltreatment occurs in 30 to 60% of families where domestic violence is present.

A large number of cases involving domestic violence enter family court, where it is mandatory to appoint a GAL. A Guardian has an important role to advocate for a child but without adequate training or expertise, they jeopardize the safety and well-being of children, as well as abused parents.

The tragic result of this is revealed recent studies – the American Judges Association found that approximately 70% of batterers are granted sole or joint custody.

Another study revealed that 90% of children disclosing abuse receive no protection, with 70% being placed in shared custody and visitation arrangements without any supervision, and 20% being placed in the custody of the parent they accused of abuse, and losing unsupervised or all contact with the parent who sought to protect them.

This is happening with the assistance of Guardians.

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The training for GALs on domestic violence is insufficient to understand the complex nature and manifestations of domestic violence as it relates to family dynamics, the welfare of children, and the safety and well-being of the abused parent.

How domestic violence manifests post separation, and in a legal setting, is another area that needs increased awareness and training. It is well known that abusers can be charming and manipulative, a GAL not properly trained to identify the tactics of an abuser could easily be taken advantage of. Feeding their need for control, abusers engineer the total destruction of the protective parent, and use the legal system as a weapon. False allegations are raised to deprive the other parent of custody. Prolonged legal battles result in financial hardship which can lead to homelessness. And the family is devastated at every level. I have seen this played out over and over.

The quality of training is also impacted by the lack of oversight and accountability in the GAL program. Guardians are rarely disciplined, and there is no monitoring after a complaint is filed. So problem Guardians go undetected and are used to train new Guardians…this in turn creates systemic problems, and is why so many complaints are similar. There must be more accountability within the GAL program to include an outside review panel.

I personally know of situations in which the GAL has been dishonest in dealings with parents. Cases where GALs ignored reports of domestic violence, ignored the children’s requests to remain with their primary caregiver, and instead recommended custody to an abuser. In several cases there was sexual abuse of a child with no adequate follow-up because the reporting parent was not taken seriously and evidence of abuse was ignored. In a memorable case, a GAL actually asked a mother, who was a victim of abuse, how much she would be willing to pay to have her children returned to her. This is unthinkable when you realize the harm this is causing to innocent children.

The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study by the CDC notes the lifelong detrimental effects on children who witness domestic violence, are physically or sexually abused, or are separated from their primary caregiver. Adverse childhood experiences lead to poor outcomes that continue into adulthood. If children are protected and are allowed to remain safe with a loving, parent these effects will be minimized or avoided.

The Guardian ad Litem claims the child is their client, yet the programs fails to account that a child’s connection with a loving, protective parent is of utmost concern. In the current program children do not exist as separate entities. Children are not given attorneys to represent them in family court. GALs assume control over children, engaging in power struggles with parents to claim rights, and decision making abilities that were never meant to be taken into the hands of stranger, or the government, but rest in the authority of parents alone.

It is up to us to assure that what is in the “best interest” of our children is what takes place.. That is our duty as a society.

I have a copy of the Wisconsin Domestic Abuse Guidebook for Wisconsin Guardians ad Litems to leave with you as a suggested guideline serving to protect children in our Family Court System.

Letting Down Their Guard: What GALs Should Know About Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputeshttps://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/schools/law/lawreviews/journals/bctwj/24_2/02_FMS.htm

____________________

The Legislative Audit Committee met on April 6, 2017 and selected the Guardian ad Litem Program for audit. 

Read Here for More Information: OLA Guardian ad Litem Topic Selection Background Paper April 2017

The Guardian ad Litem program (GAL) was last audited in 1995 – that is 22 years ago…now is the the time to be heard, and provide your feedback.

There is still time to provide written comments concerning the Guardian ad Litem Program!  

From an e-mail from Caitlin Badger today who is on the GAL audit team and she said, ” It would be most helpful to us to have all comments submitted by the beginning of October, but we are happy to hear from people for the remainder of the calendar year.”

PLEASE get the word out to people so they can submit their concerns, or add any other feedback they have.

Contact Jodi Munson Rodríguez, program evaluation manager by e-mail at: jodi.rodriguez@state.mn.us

Or, Caitlin Badger, EvaluatorCaitlin.Badger@state.mn.us

Posted in Family Court, Guardian ad Litem, Parents in Family Court | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

URGENT NOTICE ** Law to Inform Foster Children of their Rights Could Overwhelm Public Defenders  

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(Minnesota) McKenna’s Law“, named for now 13-year-old McKenna Ahrenholz, who has been involved in the foster care system due to neglect and abuse, requires social workers to inform foster children who are 10 and older that they have a right to an attorney and they can’t waive that right without speaking with one first.

McKenna’s Law was unanimously passed into law into May 2017, and will officially come into effect on August 1st 2017.

McKenna’s Law is now facing a challenge that could impact the children it is intending to protect,”..with no way of knowing how many children will want legal representation, lawmakers couldn’t pinpoint a funding figure. So the measure passed without allotting any extra resources to the public defenders who will ultimately be doing the job...” This means there may not be enough public defenders to represent children needing legal representation.

The State of Minnesota could face a class action lawsuit if children who are eligible for an attorney and want one are turned away. It’s against the law not to give a child 10 and older, involved in CPS proceedings, an attorney if they ask for one.

Source KSTP News, Katherine Johson: Law to Inform Foster Children of their Rights Could Overwhelm Public Defenders

** BE A VOICE FOR MCKENNA’S LAW: HOW YOU CAN HELP **

The Children’s Law Center is actively looking for volunteer attorneys to offer their services to help execute the law the way it was intended.

For more information, or to donate to the Children’s Law Center, follow this link: Children’s Law Center Minnesota

Or contact CLC at info@clcmn.org.

Additional Thoughts: In the video posted above, Rep Ron Kresha (R) reads a  letter written by McKenna Ahrenholz who describes the hellish life of abuse and neglect that she, and her siblings, have experienced at the hands of her parents.

McKenna says that CPS and the social service system failed to protect her.McKenna says she pleaded with the Guardian ad Litem, social workers and county attorney for help but no one would listen. McKenna and her siblings were taken into foster care only to be returned home, where she was beaten, starved, and forced to live in unsanitary conditions.

McKenna Ahrenholz complained to state social workers and her guardian ad litem she did not want to leave foster care and return home to her father.

‘My dad abused us, and he wouldn’t feed us,’ said McKenna, who met her grandparents for the first time in 2014 and now lives with them. ‘We would just eat on the floor with boxes as our table, and eat off a box.’

McKenna says she and her siblings bounced in an out of foster care, but often ended up back at home because, she says, no one would listen to her.

We’d be like, ‘No, we don’t want to go home! Why do you have to take us home?’ And they were like ‘Oh, he’s perfectly fine, there’s nothing wrong with him,” she said.” Source: 12-Year-Old Pushes Lawmakers To Pass Legal Protections For Foster Care Children/

Only when McKenna was able to obtain an attorney did she have a voice in court, and a means to advocate for herself.

McKenna is now safe, and living with her grandparents. However, McKenna has to endure another trauma because she has been court ordered into visitation with her father. McKenna refuses to visit, but unless the court takes action to protect her, she will continue to be at risk.

How can it be that children taken into state care, the most vulnerable members of society, are not being provided with legal representation… when the State of Minnesota has given an ample budget to afford legal representation for the Guardian ad Litems? 

This blog applauds the work, and efforts of GALs who truly are working to make a positive difference in the lives of children. Your example, and your compassion, is desperately needed in the system.

However, those GALs who are violating their mandated duties or whose actions endanger the lives of children should not be protected with legal counsel, nor afforded immunity (as they currently have). It is outrageous that due to the failures of one GAL that McKenna and her siblings were sent to live in an abusive, unsafe home and physical and mentally harmed as a result… and while she is fighting for an attorney, the State of Minnesota has already provided legal representation to the GAL who is enabling the abuse to continue! 

Consider this: 

The NCSC study found that the Minnesota GAL program is heavily utilizing attorney representation and consultation on cases in a way that does not serve children but rather, is to meet the needs of Guardians or the program, itself.

(p. 27),”Through interviews and a review of budget information, NCSC found a wide range across the districts in the expenditures for attorney consultation and representation, and a range that didn’t correlate with children served.

Some interviewees and survey respondents suggested that districts that rely heavily on volunteers use a disproportionate amount of attorney consultation and representation.

However, it should be noted that in the 4th District, it has been the policy of the Juvenile Court bench that an attorney be assigned to the GAL for the trial. For FY 2012-2016, approximately $2.3 million was spent on attorney consultations and representation in all ten districts. Approximately $1.5 million of that was spent in the 2nd and 4th Districts.” Minnesota Guardian ad Litem Program Offers “Treats” in Exchange for Cash, Volunteers

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Minnesota Guardian ad Litem Program Offers “Treats” in Exchange for Cash, Volunteers

Minnesota Guardian ad Litem  program and CASA is actively seeking volunteers and financial donations in a recent advertisement promising “treats” in exchange for attending an upcoming recruitment session to be held on August 3rd, 2017. Guardian ad-Litem Child Advocacy Learning Session (with treats)

Efforts to enlist volunteer guardians are being made despite recommendations from a recent survey conducted by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to significantly re-organize the program, and specifically, “The GAL Board should explore moving towards a universal employee model and away from the extensive use of volunteers…” (p.30) Assessment of the Organizational Structure and Service Delivery Model of the Minnesota Guardian Ad Litem Program

Public Domain wallpapersafari.com

How Many Volunteer Guardian ad Litems are Being Used in Minnesota?

The NCSC consult indicates that volunteers GALs are being heavily utilized in only two judicial districts – the 2nd, Ramsey County, and the 4th, Hennepin County, both part of the heavily populated Metro Area. Volunteer GALs are primarily used on child protection cases.

The breakdown of volunteers used in each district can be found on page 25 of the NCSC consult and reflects the following: the 2nd district utilizes 123 volunteers and the 4th district utilizes 225 volunteers, and further says these districts are “relying predominantly on volunteer GALs… The other districts use few, if any, volunteers. No use of volunteer GALs in districts 1,3, and 7-10. Only 3 volunteers are used in districts 5 and 6.

Are Guardians the ONLY people whose “sole concern is the best interest of the child”? 

The advertisement relies on heavily emotional language to entice potential volunteers, quote: “While other parties in the case are concerned about the child, the Guardian ad Litem is the ONLY (emphasis added) person in the case whose sole concern is the best interests of the child…

But is this true?

Parents are considered “parties” in the case. To say that a GAL cares more about the “best interest” of a child than a mother or father does is shockingand simply untrue. Statements like these create an environment where a GAL is pitted against a parent, rather than working with a family to meet the needs of a child.

Public Domain alphacoders.com

The Problematic Role of GALs

The NCSC also found, through interviews, that GALs are frequently being called to perform duties outside of their mandated role. (p. 21)

This commonly occurs when GALs are taking on responsibilities which they are prohibited from doing by statute. As shown in the NCSC study, and raised in complaints from numerous parents, GALs are making decisions regarding parenting time, medical decisions, decisions regarding education, establishing the worth of a child’s religion or culture, determining whether abuse occurred or not (etc) without authority or expertise to do so. Many parents complain they feel violated, and their rights have been violated, because the GAL (and often the judge) is assuming control over their lives, and their children’s lives, with negative consequences. And judges are using on GALs not to represent children but to assist in the demands of their own job.

One interviewee is recorded as saying in the NCSC study: “For example, as one GAL noted in the survey, “[W]e are being used as parenting time evaluators, and often are requested to step outside of our roles as guardians ad litem. We often are requested to identify parenting time, set a schedule, monitor the parenting schedule, and have control over parenting time. It was my understanding that we make recommendations for parenting time, but it appears that the court is using our role in a way that it should not be used. It appears that we are being requested to step outside of our roles are GALs in family law cases, and it does not appear to meet the statutory requirements of GALs…” (p. 21)

Problems With Volunteer GALs

According to the NCSC  study:”‘As one interviewee noted, “Volunteer GAL programs should be eliminated as cost ineffective and difficult to supervise…’” (p. 24) National Center for State Courts (NCSC) study of Minnesota Guardian ad Litem program, June 2017. It should be noted that the consult did not allow the public to provide feedback in any meaningful way, and that “interviewee” was either directly involved with the Guardian ad Litem program, or the court system (see p. 16 for data on stakeholders interviewed).

In addition, “When the survey responses were examined by volunteer, full time, and part time status, there was a notable distinction among full time GALs. Full time GALs were more likely than volunteers and part-time GALs to disagree with the statement that the organization and service delivery model of the current GAL system is efficient and effective.” (p. 27)

Attorney Representation for GALs Increases with Use of Volunteers

The NCSC study found that the Minnesota GAL program is heavily utilizing attorney representation and consultation on cases in a way that does not serve children but rather, is to meet the needs of Guardians or the program, itself.

(p. 27),”Through interviews and a review of budget information, NCSC found a wide range across the districts in the expenditures for attorney consultation and representation, and a range that didn’t correlate with children served.

Some interviewees and survey respondents suggested that districts that rely heavily on volunteers use a disproportionate amount of attorney consultation and representation.

However, it should be noted that in the 4th District, it has been the policy of the Juvenile Court bench that an attorney be assigned to the GAL for the trial. For FY 2012-2016, approximately $2.3 million was spent on attorney consultations and representation in all ten districts. Approximately $1.5 million of that was spent in the 2nd and 4th Districts.”

One of these attorneys, even spoke on behalf of a GAL during a newspaper interview: Separated From Their Kids, Parents Unite Against One Court Guardian

The State Guardian ad Litem Board denies using attorneys to personally represent GALs but many parents involved in family court have raised complaints that attorneys are actively representing GALs, raising a defense and even attacking parents during proceedings. Pro se parents, who lack legal representation, feel ambushed – and without defense as judges often side with GALs when complaints are filed, especially when a GAL is represented by an attorney.

Public Domain

Is Fundraising at a Recruitment Event for GALs Ethical? 

Is it ethical to solicit donations from potential GALs and raise funding for the program at a recruitment event?

The advertisement offers a list of 3 discussion topics at the event which include:

*What is a volunteer Guardian ad Litem/Court Appointed Special Advocate?

*What are the requirements and training to serve as a Guardian ad Litem?

*Financial donation

At the bottom of the CASA advertisement is a hyperlink that leads to a page to charge the donation to a credit card.

Minnesota does not have a code of conduct in place for GALs, however requesting donations in this way does raise concern.

The point of a recruitment event for the GAL program should be focused on the needs, and best interest, of the children and NOT seeking financial donations. Second, requesting donations at an event meant to recruit new GALs creates an appearance of impropriety, and undermines the purpose of the GAL program.

Recruit Volunteers? Or Address Current Problems in GAL Program? 

With these types of problems existing in the current GAL program, and given the dysfunctional work environment, it is inappropriate to enlist new volunteers. This is both unfair to the children, and to the Guardians, themselves. Children’s lives will continue to be at risk with a system that does not truly uphold their best interest, and further at risk by recruiting Guardians who can not perform to the best of their ability because the system is set up to fail.

 

Read More – Recent Scandals from Minnesota’s Troubled GAL Program:

Court Grants Child Molester Custody – Psych Eval for “Protective” Mother

Former Volunteer GAL Terri Ann Milstein Pleads Guilty to Promoting Prostitution

Mark Toogood Busted in Prostitution Sting: Human Service Employee, Long History Guardian ad Litem Program

Minnesota on the Map for Two International Custody Battles Involving Japan

MN GAL Board Boasts: Abuser Gains Custody – Victim Labelled ‘Paranoid’ Forced Out of Kid’s Lives

MN: GALs Plan Party At the Bar While Parents, State Struggle With Reform

Separated From Their Kids, Parents Unite Against One Court Guardian

Posted in Child Protection/CPS, Family Court, Guardian ad Litem, Meetings & Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

(Minnesota) 10 Children File Class Action Lawsuit After Child Protection System Fails to Keep Them Safe

(May 31, 2017) A civil rights class action lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court against Hennepin County and several Hennepin County and State of Minnesota officials implementing its child protective system and the Minnesota Department of Human Services for its failures and actions that caused further harm to children under its care.

Read the lawsuit here: T.F. v Hennepin County

FOR UPDATES ON THIS DEVELOPING STORY PLZ VISIT PACER: https://www.pacermonitor.com/public/case/21575623/TF_et_al_v_Hennepin_County_et_al

The lawsuit is known as T.F. v Hennepin County. According to the lawsuit, “Hennepin County is failing to live up to its responsibilities, and Defendants have long been aware that its child protection system has devolved into a confusing, underfunded, and erratic system that inflicts harm on the children it serves on a widespread and measurable basis.” (p.3) Research suggests that Hennepin County’s child protective system may be the most deficient in the nation.

The lawsuit is filed on behalf of 10 minor children (p. 5-6). The lawsuit defends two classes of children “who are or will be the subject of reports of suspected child abuse or neglect made to Hennepin County, who are or will be under the protective supervision of, or in the custody of Hennepin County, or who are under the guardianship of the Commissioner of Human Services”.

The children are represented by Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, with a team headed by James L. Volling; Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director A Better Childhood (ABC) a non-profit dedicated to reforming child welfare systems across the country and Eric Heckler, a New York civil rights litigator.

The sad stories of these children ages 4 to 14 years old are detailed in the lawsuit on pages 12-43. Several of the children have been physically harmed in foster care, all have been traumatized, and none of the children have been placed in a safe, permanent home.

The lawsuit alleges that the Hennepin County child protective system is failing children in the following ways:

  • Failed to properly investigate reports of child abuse or neglect
  • Failed to provide appropriate services to children and their families
  • Failed to provide safe and appropriate foster care placements for children.
  • When removed from homes, children often hang in limbo in shelter care or emergency shelters and/or poorly managed or dangerous group homes and foster homes. This is traumatic for children, and is destabilizing.
  • Failed to provide safe, secure permanent homes for children who can’t be returned to their own homes
  • Many children are returned to unsafe home environments where they are re-abused, and then re-enter the system. An even higher percentage of children re-enter foster care in Hennepin County after having been reunited with their parents. Research shows that in 2016, 16.2% of children re-entered foster care within 12 months of leaving, this re-entry rate is nearly double the federal standard, which is 8.3%.
  • Hennepin County has failed to find permanent homes for children who are placed for adoption they linger in the system for years as wards of the state or age out of the system without ever have found permanent placement.
  • Case workers lack adequate training or support needed to carry out their responsibilities. Further, case workers are assigned to caseloads in excess of national standards and do not have desks to which they are regularly assigned to work. Generally, morale is low and turnover is high.
  • Hennepin County screens out or fails to properly investigate far too many reports of abuse or neglect of children.
  • Investigation and assessments are incomplete or poor quality.

As a result of these failures, the lawsuit claims, the health, safety and well-being of children is endangered. Basically a child who is taken into state care faces a fate that is no better than the abuse and neglect they have been removed from.

Similar sentiments were echoed by CPS Whistleblower, Carlos Morales who is a former Texas CPS investigator. Morales says, “…in foster homes you have a way higher chance of being raped, molested, abused and killed than you do in an actual home where you are already being abused…what I found is that the situations we removed them from were not more helpful…” Morales is careful to note that not every foster home is bad and not every foster parent is bad but the system as a whole is failing children, and families. Morales says that financial incentives increase the odds of corruption occurring within CPS. Morales also says that incentives promote labeling children with psychiatric diagnosis and drugging them rather than offering any real understanding, support or care for the children.

In a troubling essay titled “I’m Guilty of Child Kidnapping for the State” Morales further elaborates: “I’m guilty of working for an organization that has hampered freedom throughout the United States, and has caused millions of parents to live in fear. I’m guilty of working for an agency that has done more to carry out the war on drugs than the war against child abuse. I’m guilty of working for an agency that has kidnapped children, thrown them in to foster homes, and destroyed their lives. I’m guilty of working for CPS. Within CPS, I did not help children, I hurt. I did not protect families, I helped ruin them. I did not work to benefit society, instead I helped imprison it. I’m Guilty of Child Kidnapping for the State

The lawsuit asks the District Court to certify the case as a class action on behalf of the children and to find that the defendants have violated these children’s constitutional, federal and state law rights. Improvements to the child protection system are also offered in the request for relief (p. 88-91).

FOR MORE INFORMATION: 

Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Hennepin County Over Child Protection (KSTP News)

TEN MINNESOTA CHILDREN BRING FEDERAL CLASS ACTION AGAINST HENNEPIN COUNTY AND STATE FOR FAILING TO KEEP THEM SAFE

A Better Childhood

Posted in Child Abuse, Child Protection/CPS, Legal and News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Letting Down Their Guard: What Guardian ad Litems Should Know About Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputes

The batterer’s desire to regain power and control in the relationship provides a subtext to child custody litigation involving a history of domestic violence. 

Awareness of that subtext is critical if GALs are to assume the task of determining whether custody and visitation arrangements will contribute to the children’s safety and healing, or will instead create an opportunity for batterers to continue to control and victimize their former partners and children. Nevertheless, actors in the legal system, including GALs, continue to overlook the connections between domestic violence and custody disputes…” ~ Cynthia Grover Hastings

 

Title: Letting Down Their Guard: What Guardian ad Litems Should Know About Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputes

Author: Cynthia Grover Hastings, family law attorney from Massachusetts

Summary: This article examines the role of Guardian ad Litems (GAL) in family court cases that involve domestic violence (DV) and exposes the failures in the GAL program that place the lives of children, and victimized parents at risk.

“Letting Down Their Guard” concludes with recommendations on how to improve training for GALs, and ways to increase their skill set in areas involving domestic violence and its impact on children. It also offers insight on how a GAL, and by extension program managers, can improve the handling of cases involving domestic violence.

Guardian ad Litems are appointed by the court to advocate for children and to make recommendations concerning visitation and custody. Courts are required to appoint a GAL in cases involving domestic violence or in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect. It is also becoming more common for courts to appoint GALs in cases deemed “high conflict”, especially where one party is self-represented.

NOTE: Self-represented parties are often labelled as being “burdensome” and “difficult” and “complex” by the court system and it has become an acceptable solution to appoint a GAL to these types of cases to figure things out. I would argue that appointing a GAL to a case simply because one party is self-represented is inappropriate, discriminatory and requires a GAL to act outside the scope of their duties. A GAL has specific mandated duties if a family needs services outside of that, and it is an issue that does not jeopardize the health or well-being of a child, community resources and legal resources can be utilized to meet the needs of the parties.

A majority of cases that a GAL is appointed to involve some form of domestic violence or child abuse yet, Hastings cites research and an actual family court case to show evidence that many GALs lack the education or training to properly handle cases involving domestic violence,Considering their role in custody cases, it is disquieting that guardians ad litem (GALs) are often unaware of the dynamics of domestic violence or insensitive to its impact on children…When GALs lack understanding or are simply inattentive to the repercussions of partner abuse, they may adversely affect a significant number of custody decisions.”

Hastings says that a GAL program does not live up to its potential to protect the interests of children affected by violence but believes the flaws in the system should be acknowledged and addressed rather than abolish the system as a whole. To terminate the GAL program, Hastings says, would put already vulnerable children even more at risk because they would have absolutely no protection in legal proceedings at all.

Hastings believes that a GAL does have the potential to be a positive impact in the life of a child. She says that GAL could also be an important voice in making sure the courts are aware of a family history of violence and using their investigation to determine how the violence has affected the child, and making recommendations that address safety concerns with the children and victimized parent.

In “Letting Their Guard Down”, Hastings discusses:

  • A historical look at the judicial system’s use of GALs to protect the interest of children
  • The widespread effect of domestic violence, including how DV manifests after separation, including in a legal setting, this section will”look more closely at the epidemic of battering, incidents of separation assault, the relationship between custody litigation and domestic violence, and how battering affects the children who are exposed to it.”
  • Why the influence of GALs in cases involving DV tend to be more problematic than helpful for the children the GALs are meant to protect
  • Offers model guidelines for GALs to increase the safety of children and parent-victims of domestic violence that are involved in family court proceedings 

     I think “Letting Down Their Guard” should have gone further to discuss. 

    • Issues with the management of the GAL program – their supervision of GALs, and ability to detect and/or correct problems. There is an overall need for increased accountability in the GAL program. 
    • The Complaint Process – does not acknowledge that a parent has a right to file a complaint against a GAL if they feel they, or the child, have been mistreated. And does not offer recommendations for a complaint process to be filed vs a GAL or offer guidance on any disciplinary measures

“Letting Down Their Guard” is an excellent article…and would highly recommend for its comprehensive research on domestic violence and family court issues. 

Posted in Child Abuse, Family Court, Guardian ad Litem | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Update from MN Office of the Legislative Auditor: GAL Roundtable Discussion

Public Domain Image http://www.pd4pic.com

There is still time to provide written comments concerning the Guardian ad Litem Program!  

From an e-mail from Caitlin Badger, who is on the GAL audit team: ” It would be most helpful to us to have all comments submitted by the beginning of October, but we are happy to hear from people for the remainder of the calendar year (2017).

PLEASE inform your networks, friends, social media, anyone who may be interested so they can submit concerns, or any other feedback.

Contact Jodi Munson Rodríguez, program evaluation manager by e-mail at: jodi.rodriguez@state.mn.us

Or, Caitlin Badger, EvaluatorCaitlin.Badger@state.mn.us

________________

An update from the MN Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA)  about the 2017 audit of the Guardian ad Litem programOLA Minnesota

Roundtable Discussion: Guardians Ad Litem, Monday, May 15, 1:00 p.m., Room 300N, State Office Building.

Address: State Office Building
100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Saint Paul, MN 55155

State Office Building – Directions, Parking, General Info

OLA has released this statement concerning the Roundtable Discussion:

Interested Stakeholders:

The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) is beginning a program evaluation of the Guardians ad Litem program. We are seeking input from stakeholders like you as we begin developing our evaluation questions and the scope of our research activities.

OLA is a nonpartisan audit and evaluation office in the legislative branch of Minnesota state government.  We evaluate programs’ activities to determine how effectively and efficiently programs, as a whole, are fulfilling their missions.  We do not have the resources to investigate individual cases or the authority to conduct criminal investigations.  If you would like more information about OLA, click here to visit our homepage.

Our preliminary areas of study are:

  • How effectively the Guardians ad Litem program is governed
  • How well the Guardian ad Litem board recruits, trains, monitors, and evaluates guardians ad litem
  • The extent to which complaint and appeal processes are fair and effective

Depending on what we hear at the open forum, we may alter the focus of the evaluation.  Given the level of interest in this topic, we may need to limit the length of individual comments to ensure everyone who attends the forum has the opportunity to speak.

 If you are unable to attend the open forum or would like to provide written comments, please contact Jodi Munson Rodríguez, the program evaluation manager. You may reach her at jodi.rodriguez@state.mn.us.

The Round Table Discussion is an important opportunity to gain more information on the audit process and have your concerns heard.

 Note:  It is important for the public to keep in mind when providing information to the Evaluators that they are seeking information regarding the problems within the whole system of the MN State GAL Program.  Their focus will be on reviewing the system.  There has been a common pattern of GAL problems affecting so many parents and children in family court, making it quite easy for the public to identify and compile this information to give to the Evaluators.  This focus area will have the most benefit and impact on the audit process.  Think about this as you prepare your input.

For more information about the role of a Guardian ad Litem, and their mandated duties please visit: Role of the Guardian ad Litem (GAL)

For More Info:

Breaking News: MN Guardian ad Litem Program to be Audited

(Minnesota) NOTICE: Public Will Have Input Into 2017 Audit of GAL Program

OLA Guardian ad Litem Topic Selection Background Paper April 2017

Posted in Family Court, Guardian ad Litem, Legal and News, Meetings & Events, Minnesota Guardian ad Litem, Parents in Family Court | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

MN Guardian Ad Litem Board Admits – Abuser Awarded Custody, then Removes Evidence from Website

Did the Minnesota State Guardian ad Litem Board, and Suzanne Alliegro (State Program Administrator) delete case history off the GAL Board website in order to cover up evidence that a GAL recommended change of custody to an abuser and labelled the victim as paranoid after she raised abuse allegations? Shocking e-mail exchange with Alliegro along with screen shots of the original website released… 

This case is discussed in further detail at: MN GAL Board Boasts: Abuser Gains Custody – Victim Labelled ‘Paranoid’ Forced Out of Kid’s Lives

Suzanne Alliegro says during the e-mail exchange concerning this case that,”If you are interested in getting more information on the case, I will check to get the file number, status of the case and where you can get more information.” The facts being reported about this case are concerning enough to warrant an investigation. Alliegro has agreed to release information, which should be done but in a way that protects the privacy of the family involved. The Auditor’s Office and NCSC Consultants should also be given access to information concerning this case.

The website for the MN State Guardian ad Litem Board looks very different today than it did back in 2015, and the case histories now included on the current website have all been totally revised. What prompted this change? Documentation gathered from viewing the State GAL website history and gathered from an e-mail exchange between a concerned citizen and Suzanne Alliegro indicate that the website was changed soon after a citizen alerted Alliegro to a concerning case involving domestic abuse that resulted in the victim losing custody to an identified abuser, and then becoming estranged from her children’s lives. The case that Alliegro was questioned about in the e-mail was promptly removed from the State GAL Board website after concerns were raised about the GAL’s handling of the case. 

The Case History in question reads:

  • Change of Custody to Father
    A GAL had been appointed for two pre-teen girls in a marriage dissolution case where there had been some domestic abuse between the parents.  Throughout the case, the GAL grew increasingly concerned about the mother’s mental health.  The mother demonstrated increased paranoia and made multiple allegations against the father.  Eventually, the GAL recommended a change in custody to the father with the mother having supervised parenting time.  The children began to stabilize when they were placed in their father’s care.  The mother continued to struggle with mental health issues and did not keep the supervised visits.  The involvement of the GAL helped bring the case to resolution and provided the court with much-needed information regarding the best interests of the children.

After reading this troubling story, a concerned citizen contacted Suzanne Alliegro to ask how case histories are selected for the GAL website, and also questioned the GAL’s handling of the domestic abuse issues in this case (full letter posted below). Questions asked of Alliegro included:

  • The story says there has been some domestic abuse between the parents but does not indicate that there was any treatment or intervention for the identified perpetrator of abuse. Can you clarify what happened?
  • It also says the GAL is concerned about the mother’s mental health and was identified as being paranoid, did the GAL have any degrees or training to make such a diagnosis? And what is done to differentiate between a real mental health issue and something that may be a result of domestic violence and/or trauma?
  • I also find it interesting that it is reported that the children began to “stabilize” after being taken from their mother, put into their father’s care and then ordered into supervised visits with the mother. How is that possible that such a huge transition would stabilize a child? Did the children receive any therapy or aftercare?

Alliegro responds that since the State GAL website was launched over 5 years ago (quote), “..so the case histories are somewhat dated as we have not replaced them since the website inception.Dated? The date that this case happened has nothing to do with the conduct of the GAL appointed to the case. The wording does, however, suggest that Alliegro is making excuses to  justify removing the case history from the State GAL Board website…which would also cover up the existence of this case, and possible misconduct by the GAL.

When asked about the case history, Alliegro responds,”The case histories are meant to provide a sample of the type of cases and issues handled by a guardian ad litem and are not meant to provide all details of a particular case and all information gathered by the guardian ad litem.” That may be the case but the few details being reported in this case should be a concern to the Program Manager, and the GAL Board. The job of the GAL is to advocate for the best interest of children and make recommendations that would ensure their safety – instead, in this case, the GAL is advocating for an abuser! Instead of concern the Minnesota GAL program boasts of this tragic case where an abuse victim is punished after she “made multiple allegations (of abuse) against the father“, and then loses custody to an identified abuser as being a success story. “Multiple allegations” should be investigated with the safety of the children being a priority… what has to happen to the children before they are protected? Children should be removed from an unsafe environment not left in the care and custody of abusive parent. 

Responding to the question about the GAL possibly diagnosing a mental health issue, Alliegro says, “A guardian ad litem does not make mental health diagnoses but typically provides the court information from qualified professionals..” In this case, the GAL was making a mental health determination based on her own opinion – not utilizing a professional. Going back to the case history,”The mother demonstrated increased paranoia ..” That is a first hand reporting from the GAL.

The case mentioned here is not unique – there are an untold number of similar stories happening to both women and men, mothers and fathers, dealing with the failures and corruption happening GAL program in every part of Minnesota. Signficant problems in the GAL program have gone unchecked for over 22 years. In the year 2016 alone, around 17,000 children in Minnesota were represented by a Guardian ad Litem in about 8,000 cases. Take that number times 22 years…there could be tens of thousands of victims of the GAL program in Minnesota alone. It is time we as citizens, as parents, and as a Legislative body make serious efforts to reform the GAL program and work to better protect children from systemic abuse, and stop the unjust removal of children from fit, loving parents.

MN GAL Board adopts “See no Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil ” Policy – Claiming ignorance of wrongdoing and misconduct rather than exposing it or taking responsibility. Public Domain Image: https://wall.alphacoders.com

Read for yourself:

from:
to: suzanne.alliegro@courts.state.mn.us
date: Mon, Sep 21, 2015 at 12:11 AM
subject: RE: GAL Case Histories and Articles

Hello Ms. Alliegro,

I have a comment about the “Case Histories and Articles” posted on the State GAL Board website. Not sure if you are the right person to direct my comment to, but your name popped up on the “Contact” tab.

I was looking over the State GAL Board website, and am interested in the Case Histories because they describe first hand what a Guardian does, and the results of their work.

How do you decide what stories to feature? And where do I go to find updates on the stories?

I also have some questions on the last story “Change of Custody to a Father”. The story says there has been some domestic abuse between the parents but does not indicate that there was any treatment or intervention for the identified perpetrator of abuse. Can you clarify what happened? It also says the GAL is concerned about the mother’s mental health and was identified as being paranoid, did the GAL have any degrees or training to make such a diagnosis? And what is done to differentiate between a real mental health issue and something that may be a result of domestic violence and/or trauma?

I also find it interesting that it is reported that the children began to “stabilize” after being taken from their mother, put into their father’s care and then ordered into supervised visits with the mother. How is that possible that such a huge transition would stabilize a child? Did the children receive any therapy or aftercare?

Any additional info you could provide would be much appreciated.

Thank You,

from: Alliegro, Suzanne<Suzanne.Alliegro@courts.state.mn.us>
to:  
date: Tue, Sep 22, 2015 at 1:51 PM
subject: RE: GAL Case Histories and Articles
mailed-by: courts.state.mn.us

Good afternoon Mr.,

We initially launched the website over five years ago so the case histories are somewhat dated as we have not replaced them since the website inception.   Given that five years have passed, I do not remember the criteria we used to determine which cases were to be placed on the website.   The case histories are meant to provide a sample of the type of cases and issues handled by a guardian ad litem and are not meant to provide all details of a particular case and all information gathered by the guardian ad litem.  

Regarding an update on what happened with the case, it is highly doubtful that a guardian ad litem is still assigned to the case as our appointments in a family court case are typically for six months with some being shorter and some longer.  If you are interested in getting more information on the case, I will check to get the file number, status of the case and where you can get more information.  

A guardian ad litem does not make mental health diagnoses but typically provides the court information from qualified professionals such as psychologists, therapists, etc. regarding treatment and services the child and parents may be receiving while the guardian ad litem is assigned to the case.

Thank you for your email as it serves to remind us we should be more up to date with the website information.

from:
to: “Alliegro, Suzanne” <Suzanne.Alliegro@courts.state.mn.us>
date: Wed, Sep 30, 2015 at 8:56 PM
subject: Re: GAL Case Histories and Articles

Hello Ms. Alliegro,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I am very interested in the how the GAL program meets the needs of the families it serves because I am volunteering with high risk families, and some are dealing with family court issues.

RE: If you are interested in getting more information on the case, I will check to get the file number, status of the case and where you can get more information.

I would appreciate any additional information on this case that you could offer.

Regards,

Original Web Address: http://mn.gov/guardian-ad-litem/Program_Info/case_histories_articles.jsp

Original Location: Minnesota State Guardian ad Litem Board webpage. Menu Program Information. Tab Case Histories and Articles.

Posted in Child Abuse, Family Court, Guardian ad Litem, Minnesota Guardian ad Litem, Parents in Family Court | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments