Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Guardian ad litem appointments decline

Officials say increased public awareness and less contentious legal battles have resulted in Augusta judges assigning far fewer court-appointed guardians this year to divorce and child-custody cases in Richmond and Columbia counties.

Superior Court records show guardian ad litem appointments are down nearly 80 percent in the two counties so far this year, decreasing from 157 assignments in 2013 and 102 last year to 34 as of the end of October.

Last week, officials offered differing views on why appointments have declined, but they agreed that litigants have made more of an effort to avoid the paid officials that judges tab to make child-support and custody recommendations after some families alleged they were overbilled in court.

In November 2014, an investigation by The Augusta Chronicle found that guardians in Richmond and Co­lum­­bia counties – some of whom were appointed twice as often as their peers – faced few restrictions and virtually no oversight in their billing, leaving many parents struggling with debt.

“Sometimes you want an unbiased fact-finder embedded in the family court process, and I think a few years ago we had an awful lot of that, but recently it seems like it has gotten very quiet,” Superior Court Judge Michael Annis said of Augusta’s program. “I have far fewer cases where guardians are requested. I have far fewer cases where it appears that a guardian would be helpful to the court.”

The Chronicle’s investigation looked at 5,460 domestic-relations cases dating back two years and found that bills were not collected or audited, no rules existed requiring judges to assign cases on a rotation basis, and guardians had the power to hold clients in contempt to recover unpaid fees.

The lack of accountability caused one guardian to resign; the program’s advisory association to dissolve; a judge to stop making appointments; case workers to wait months for assignments; and many parents to struggle paying off $470 to $1,500 in debts owed in divorce, child custody and DNA decisions.

A year later, the Augusta Bar Asso­cia­­tion’s Family Law Division has significantly revised billing, training and professional-conduct policies to provide general oversight and accountability for guardians, but some feel more work needs to be done.

Despite receiving a list from local attorneys certifying nine people as qualified guardians, Augusta judges still retain “absolute discretion” over appointments and continue to assign many of their cases to two custody evaluators accused of overcharging parents.

For example, seven of An­nis’ 11 appointments this year in Richmond and Co­lumbia counties have been issued to Angel Kendrick, one subject of complaints.

Annis said that Kendrick is reliable and that he has “the most confidence” in her work. He suggested that much of the complaints surrounding her stem from litigants who received an unfavorable recommendation from Kendrick in their case.

“She is available and can step in on short notice to help provide professional support to some of the most dysfunctional situations,” he said.

Annis said he feels the bar did a good job in developing new policies and that they were greatly needed, but he does not feel it has had much of an effect on guardian appointments.

According to updated rules, guardians cannot exceed $500 in fees in any case unless authorized by a judge, and they must provide invoices that include a brief description of all charges, payments and credits to date to both parties and their attorneys each month.

The revamped handbook also forced all guardians, including those who have served in the past, to pass an application process requiring five years of experience, two letters of recommendation and a training seminar certificate before being approved for appointments.

The new policy states that guardians can face termination from a case or removal if a report of “unprofessional, abusive, harassing or intimidating conduct” toward a client is substantiated by the Augusta Bar or a Superior Court judge.

“If anything, the whole process may have lessened litigant reliance on guardians,” Annis said. “Maybe there is more appreciation for the fact that if it is an expense people don’t need, then why should we appoint a guardian and incur those costs?”

Annis said he was aware that appointments have decreased but had no idea they had gone down so much. Though he did not have statistics to support his theory, he attributed the decline to fewer contentious cases being filed.

“A lot more cases seem to be going to mediation quicker,” said Annis, who fears fewer appointments might result in a loss of qualified guardians who want to serve.

Cheryl Glover, who organized Stop Parental Bullying three years ago to advocate for parents who felt mistreated by the program, said she was pleased the court seems to be less reliant on guardians. She believes increased public awareness and the outrage that resulted over the guardian system has caused appointments to go down.

“Personally, I think that judges are afraid to use guardians anymore,” Glover said. “The pressure to bring change has caused appointments to decrease.”

Judge Wade Padgett, who appointed 38 guardians in Richmond and Columbia counties in 2013 and 2014, stopped using custody evaluators because he no longer wanted to manage the program’s day-to-day activities.

Glover said she would like to see more judges follow Padgett’s lead, or at the least assign cases on a rotation to keep the system from becoming “biased.”

Judge J. David Roper, who leads all Augusta judges in guardian appointments, made 13 assignments in 2015, but since last year he has diversified his case distribution by divvying out assignments this year among six people, records show. Two cases were given to Kendrick and remain open. Roper continues to decline comment on the system.

Judge Cheryl Jolly, who did not return e-mails seeking comment, appointed Ja­net Wein­berger, another target of complaints, on July 28 to make a child-custody recommendation in a Rich­mond County case that remains open, court records show.

“The process remains unfair,” Glover said. “Judges are still picking and choosing who they want to serve on a case. There needs to be more checks and balances.”

Glover said her group will continue to seek stronger policies but is not certain changes will be made.

Tom Allgood, who led the bar’s subcommittee on guardian reform, said in June that each guardian passed a thorough application process. Since then, however, he has not returned e-mails seeking comment and has declined interview requests.

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Guardian ad litem appointments decline

1 comment:

Angi said...

Guardianship of the elderly and of children are so similar.