“Guardian ad litem programs nationwide are under scrutiny for these problems and others, including violating parents’ due process rights, overstepping their legal authority and failing to protect children from abusive parents.
If these programs are indeed designed to represent the “best interests” of children, then the courts have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to ensure they are acting prudently.” ~ Augusta Chronicle Staff, 4/16/2015: “Finally, guidelines for guardians”.
(Augusta, Georgia: May 2015) For years, the Augusta Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program has been plagued with serious problems. Including: lack of accountability, judges making their own rules, certain GALs being assigned to more cases than others, unfair billing practices and lack of consistency in program rules and expectations.
Parents reported that they felt abused by the GAL program, and that their families had suffered due to its failures.“Instead of being a calming influence in often contentious and highly personal cases, local guardians ad litem actually caused more trauma.” (Augusta Chronicle, 4/16/2015). Many parents complained that when they filed a complaint, their concerns were dismissed or ignored.
In May 2015, the August Judicial Circuit initiated a systemic overhaul, based on a 13 page list of recommendations, to address problems, and to improve the GAL program. The new guidelines were written by the executive committee of the Augusta Bar Association’s Family Law Section to increase accountability, improve billing procedures, improve training, and create professional-conduct policies.
Significant changes have also been made to the application process; which applies to both new GALs and current GALs, who must re-apply under the new rules to be place on an “approved Guardian list”. Under the new rules, the Bar Association is responsible for reviewing the applications of prospective Guardians. To apply, anyone who wants to become a GAL must pay a $300 application fee and be interviewed. Instead of a 40 hour training course, a new GAL must have 5 years of experience in a related field, two letters of recommendation and a certificate from an organized training seminar. A prospective GAL must also participate in mentoring with another guardian who has at least 3 years of experience in the program. If the prospective GAL meets the requirements and passes the application process, they will be placed on on approved list that judges use to select Guardians. In addition, 12 hours of continuing education is required each year.
To address billing issues, the new guidelines limit GAL fees to $500 per case (unless authorized otherwise by a judge) and must include an invoices to give detailed descriptions of all charges. GALs are prohibited from charging interest, and unpaid charges must be addressed with the assigned judge.
In July 2015 the reform efforts hit a roadblock when the Judicial Circuit refused to acknowledge the approved Guardian list, and expressed that they will rely on “judicial discretion” rather than conform to the new guidelines. According to Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet, “...circuit judges did not endorse the list as the one they will use to appoint guardians and (said) that the family law group’s recommendations were only ‘filed as information.‘” (Source: Judges retain ‘absolute discretion’ on guardian ad litem appointments) The lack of consistency in the GAL program, with judges making up their own rules has been cited as a contributing factor to problems in the GAL program.
Concerns about the new GAL guidelines should not deter needed and necessary reform efforts. Efforts to improve the program and it’s services should be made a priority because program provides a service to the public, and directly affects outcomes for children and families.