Guardian Ad Litem Reform

Citizens working to protect children and stop the destruction of the family by Family Court injustice.

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What Really Motivates Lawyers In Missouri’s GAL System? Money!

Posted by CultureVigilante on October 5, 2011

Shortly after I posted my commentary on the newly revised Missouri guardian ad litem standards, I was contacted by Missouri Lawyer’s Media/Missouri Lawyer’s Weekly for comment. Ms. Allison Retka was kind enough to forward the complete article for your reading pleasure since the site is a member’s only publication and closed to the public.

Under new policy, Guardians ad litem must also be attorneys; GAL training hours reduced

by Allison Retka

Published: September 27th, 2011

A revamped set of standards for guardians ad litem took effect on Sept. 1 throughout Missouri.

Under the new standards, guardians ad litem must possess a law license. The standards also cut the initial training requirement for GALs from 12 to eight hours, and reduced their continuing legal education requirements from six hours to three.

“There was a lot of people who didn’t want the mandatory training because it was difficult for some people, in particular those in rural areas, to get the training,” said Martina Peterson, a family court commissioner in the Jackson County Circuit Court who co-chaired the committee that changed the standards.

“Financially and time-wise, it was difficult for them to be able to do a significant amount of training,” she said.

Guardians ad litem represent the interests of children in various types of court cases, from divorces, adoptions and juvenile criminal proceedings to child abuse and neglect cases.

The separate state statutes governing those areas of law require GALs to file motions, subpoena witnesses and appeal rulings, Peterson said. The law requires them, in effect, to practice law, she said, so GAL standards needed to reflect that.

Peterson said the committee considering the standards received little feedback from family court litigants. But one parent took to the Web earlier this month to protest elements of the new GAL standards.

Lisa Payne-Naeger, a mother in Lake Saint Louis, blogged about the new standards on her site, Guardian Ad Litem Reform. Payne-Naeger endured a contentious divorce and custody dispute in 2008 in St. Charles County Circuit Court. She said she worried that the attorney requirement will carry along with it the hefty attorney’s fees that parents must pay to the GAL assigned to their cases.

“It’s a money-grab thing,” Payne-Naeger said. “I do not believe the GAL is there to represent the children. Most of the time the GAL advocates for one or the other parent.”  She said in her divorce case, she and her ex-husband paid their guardian ad litem, Benicia Livorsi, $80,000 in GAL fees. Livorsi didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

Peterson’s said Payne-Naeger’s costly GAL experience is an extraordinary case.

“You can’t let extraordinary cases or situations guide what happens across the state,” Peterson said. “Most guardians ad litem make very little money at all doing this type of work.”

Belinda S. Elliston, another committee member and guardian ad litem in Jasper County, said the attorney requirement may affect some circuits that relied heavily on Missouri’s network of court-appointed special advocates (CASA) for GAL work. But CASA organizations maintain staff attorneys to represent the interest of children. Beth Dessem, the executive director of Missouri’s CASA Association, wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Elliston, a Lamar attorney who also works as legal counsel for the Jasper County Juvenile Office, said she appreciated the reduction in training hours. Attorneys can now avoid two days of initial training hours, which require an overnight stay and two days away from their law offices.

“When I’m out of my office, I’m not making money,” Elliston said. “And I can’t pay my bills if I’m not earning my income and having billable hours.”

The new regulations are “more reflective of what would be a practical expectation of folks serving as guardians ad litem,” Elliston said. “It provides a better service for the children in these cases, which is the ultimate goal.”

Read more bout the new standards. (PDF)

 After reading the article, it was, again abundantly clear to me, the legal system is full of people who don’t give a flying fig about the people/children they represent, it’s all about the money, and they don’t really care about how they present themselves. Perhaps the reason why they behave this way is because the judicial branch of the government is so used to operating without oversight and consequence for bad actions, they can react with flip remarks without repercussion. And they know it.
The new standards state: Guardian ad litem practice is unique and complex and, as such, requires specialized education, training, and experience.Really? Are they kidding? It must be so unique and complex that it should not require attorneys to be so burdened with time consuming efforts to educate themselves as to those uniquenesses and complexities. Right?
Why are attorneys complaining about generating income when almost all of the people they are supposed to be acting on behalf of are having their life savings drained to have their families and interests represented in courts? You continually hear, especially in cases of divorce, that no one wins, except the attorneys. When most people enter into court actions, they almost always leave with a lot less money, often times their life savings are drained, in attempts to fight for the rights of their children and families. Are we really to believe the words of Martina Peterson when she describes that it was too “hard” to get the training and too burdensome, when the actions of GALs change lives, forever? I think they should be a little more sensitive to the people they are supposed to serve before they duck their training responsibilities.
To add emphasis to the fact that the judiciary had little concern for their obligations relating to guardian ad litem service, one only needs to read the legislation passed (SB237) in 2011 to mandate updating the standards. In fact, there was no direction in SB237 to implement improving the representation of children and families.
… standards for representation by guardians ad litem shall be updated and adopted statewide and each circuit shall devise a plan for implementation which takes into account the individual needs of their circuit as well as the negative impact that excessive caseload have upon effectiveness of counsel.
If you read my previous post, you would know that the biggest change to the standards requires all GALs to be licensed attorneys even though it is not required in the statutes. Convenient, again, especially in family courts where GALs stand to make more money on these cases. And is the judiciary setting the stage to eliminate the rights of citizens to represent themselves in court? Will we see statutes change in the future to line up with the standards? The last time I checked, citizens were allowed to represent themselves in courts, if they wanted to do so. Is it really a good idea for the courts to mandate away the rights of lay people act on their own behalf in court? Is this the first step to get us there?
Just a note to the lawyers: It’s not all about you! CASA volunteers have had access to attorneys, to fill in the gaps in their cases, should the need arise to file motions, etc. I would venture to say that there is a bit more to GAL work than filing legal briefs and cross examination. And perhaps, since the day has long past for laypeople to feel comfortable, and/or welcome, to represent themselves in court, if filing motions and asking questions in cross examination is so complex, its long past time for an overhaul of the legal system. Many, many people who have been dragged through the court system will tell you they most likely didn’t get anything close to the representation they paid an overpriced attorney for.
And finally, my GAL experience was not extraordinary. There are stories, across the nation, where people have been taken to the cleaners and misrepresented by GALs and family court representatives. I continually speak to and work with people, from across the country, who have been devastated by the corrupt family court system.
10/11/11 After Missouri Lawyers Weekly made contact with the GAL in question in their article, they printed the following correction:

Correction

A Sept. 27 article about recent changes to statewide guardian ad litem standards included a quote from Lisa Payne-Naeger that said St. Charles attorney Benicia Baker-Livorsi received $80,000 in GAL fees in a case. Livorsi received less than $10,000 in fees in a contentious two-year divorce case between Payne-Naeger and Jeffrey Naeger. We regret the error.

I will follow up on this issue and keep you posted.

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