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
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.
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 Disputes: https://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: email@example.com
Or, Caitlin Badger, Evaluator: Caitlin.Badger@state.mn.us