The efforts of parents and supporters working to address systemic failures within the (family court) Guardian ad Litem Program have resulted in sweeping reforms taking place in several states, across the nation. Will Minnesota be next to publicly address GAL program failures, its devastating impact on families, and seek reform?
In Minnesota, efforts are underway to improve the Guardian ad Litem Program by changing the laws that define the responsibilities of a GAL, and their role in family court. In March 2016, a proposed in a bill, HF 3564 was presented to the legislature.
The proposed bill, HF 3564, was a result of the collaborative efforts of parents who had been involved in the family court system, and experienced significant problems existing in the GAL program. These parents are motivated to improve the GAL program in order to better protect children, and to improve the system for all families
The changes proposed in HF 3564, were drawn from a variety of sources, this is a collaborative effort, including: studies and research about the GAL program (including the 1995 audit), professional input from community sources and feedback from parents, from across Minnesota, who were involved with the GAL program. Other feedback used was drawn from a 1997 hearing before the Supreme Court, who was then considering adopting new rules to define the role and responsibility of a family court GAL. That hearing allowed the public to comment on the proposed changes and resulted in establishing the Rules of Guardian ad Litem Procedure. It is those Rules of Procedure that HF 3564 is now seeking to amend, as problems have continued to go unchecked within Minnesota’s GAL program for over 20 years.
An excerpt of a written statement submitted by advocates from Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center, Inc in March 1997 to the Minnesota Supreme Court, who were considering acting on recommendations from the GAL Task Force, struck a strong chord in explaining the issues that faced the GAL program then, and continue to be issues the program faces today: “Although our experiences with the Guardian ad Litem vary to some degree, we all agree that the lack of structure, training, code of professional ethics, and accountability in the current use of Guardian ad Litem in Family Court have been detrimental to the mental and physical well-being of the children involved, the safety and security of their homes, and the performance of the Judicial System as to their best interests.”
Commonly raised complaints about the GAL program center around two main themes. First, Guardians hold too much power in family court, and routinely perform duties beyond their mandated responsibilities or otherwise abuse their power and position. Along with that is the complaint that judges overly rely on Guardians, and assign them to perform duties which are beyond their statutory duties, or which they are not qualified to do.
Another common complaint about the Guardian ad Litem program, is mishandling of domestic violence and child abuse allegations. The failure of a Guardian to recognize abuse, and how the cycle of abuse continues after separation, and into the legal process often results in fit, loving parents being unjustly deprived of custody and/or visitation. The children are then placed into custody or visitation with allegedly abusive or unfit parents, at great risk to their safety and well-being.
HF3564 address these issues, some of the changes the proposed bill recommends include:
- – Limiting the length a GAL can be appointed on a family court case to 180 days. Judges may ask for an extension to the appointment if supported by new findings or if there are ongoing incidents of domestic abuse, neglect or endangerment.
- – When a GAL is appointed to a case, a judge must issue an appointment order defining the specific issues of concern. The GAL should only investigate and report on those specific issues of concern. If additional issues or concerns arise, all parties must be notified in writing. A hearing may be requested to expand the appointment of a GAL.
- – A GAL must include supporting documents and records with their report. If a professional report is included, a GAL must submit that report in its entirety without interpretation.
- – A GAL cannot offer a professional opinion or statement to an area they are not qualified in.
- – A GAL is prohibited from making any medical or mental health diagnosis, prognosis or treatment. However, a GAL can recommend an evaluation.
- – A GAL is prohibited from making formal recommendations or mandating a client to work with specific professionals, providers or named services.
- – A family court GAL cannot participate in a Child Protective investigation or screening. A GAL can make a mandated report, as required by law.
- – A family court GAL should not make placement arrangements or remove a child from the home
In March 2016, the proposed bill (HF3564) was read in the House but failed to gain traction needed to move forward to be passed into law. The need for GAL reform remains strong, with families across Minnesota experiencing the brunt of program failures. In states like Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine, Guardian ad Litem reform was passed but required time, effort and dedication on behalf of supporters. The first steps initiated by these brave parents are just part of the journey; hopefully the ideas and the need for them presented in HF 3564 will take hold, and others will pick up the mantle to push for GAL reform in Minnesota. Minnesota has some work to do… but be encouraged by the progress in other states that have enacted reform. It is now up to us to respond to a call to action, and work towards reforming the GAL program to address its failures, to ensure better outcomes for children and families.