Are There Better Ways of Handling Child Custody Cases in Connecticut?

Mar 26, 2014

Dr. Elizabeth Thayer said the system needs to change but advocates shouldn't just criticize the GALs.
Credit Chion Wolf/WNPR

There's growing tension in Connecticut between parents and guardian ad litem lawyers or GALs, who are appointed to represent minor children in child custody cases.

"Nobody's in disagreement here -- the system needs some change."
Elizabeth Thayer

The lawyers have been criticized for charging high fees for their services without any oversight. Some critics have even said they are almost all family law attorneys who have an incentive to keep the cases going. Earlier this month, the Connecticut Law Tribune reported that dozens of GALs withdrew their appointments when faced with increasingly angry attacks against them. One GAL wrote back saying that the job is a thankless one and not a cash cow.

But changes to the system may be on the way.

Earlier this year, a task force created by the state produced a report on how to improve the system. Advocates should stop accusing the GALs of being driven purely by profits and focus on change, said Elizabeth Thayer, a partner at Beacon Behavioral Services who was a member of the task force and spoke on WNPR's Where We Live.

“We've got to stop talking about collusion,” she said. “We've got to start talking about collaboration. Nobody's in disagreement here -- the system needs some change.”

Among other things, the task force recommended having a general rule of conduct for GALs, having a procedure to evaluate how a GAL did at the end of a case, and listing how much the state's qualified GALs charge per hour. The task force gave the state General Assembly's Judiciary Committee more than 90 recommendations.

Peter Szymonik started an online petition calling for reform to the GAL system in Connecticut.
Credit Chion Wolf/WNPR

Some states have different approaches to the issue, as Peter Szymonik, a father and advocate for family court reform in Connecticut pointed out on Where We Live. "Why do other states do this so much better than we do?" he asked. "Because the guardians ad litem are not attorneys, the guardians ad litem are mental health professionals, people from all walks of life."

He wrote that GALs in Connecticut have been allowed to “personally enrich themselves at the expense of parents and families.” As one example of an alternative, he pointed to Florida, where the GALs are mostly volunteers. He also pointed to Maine, which reformed the laws governing GALs last year. Among other things, the bill called for GALs to have explicitly defined roles, a job description, and standardized billing procedures.

“That's a fantastic change, because now there's visibility into what the guardian ad litem is doing,” Szymonik said.

The Connecticut Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a public hearing on the issue soon.