- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

The debate over a bill before the Maryland General Assembly offers the public a glimpse of the torments parents endure in family court. This “emergency” legislation — put forward by lawyers to restore broad immunity to guardians ad litem (GALs)in child custody cases — directly pits parental interests against lawyer interests.

The legislation is in response to a recent Maryland Appeals Court ruling allowing GALs to be sued for malpractice like any lawyer in private practice.

One father who testified against the bill, told how 4 years ago, he lost his bid for custody of his 5-year-old son even though his former wife was engaged to a convicted child molester.

The GAL, who opposed father custody, completely ignored the grave danger to the child. The father’s worse nightmare was realized. His son, now 9, told Washington County authorities last month that his stepfather had sexually abused him and two friends, beginning shortly after his mother married the convicted offender and continuing through last Christmas.

While the stepfather is now in jail, the boy’s father wonders how his son’s life can be restored, and why a GAL who makes such an egregious error should not be held accountable.

Lawyers would have the public believe such cases are rare. Of course, a mother rarely marries a convicted child molester, but guardian incompetence, or a guardian serving self-interest rather than the child’s interest, is common.

GALs are lawyers appointed by the court to somehow “objectively” represent the children’s interest in a custody case. Unfortunately, the inherent self-interest of a GAL is to prolong the case as much as possible, which can be done by putting off decisions or favoring the belligerent party.

In my 15 years of fathers’-rights activism, I have seen this pattern repeatedly. That is why in the book I wrote to warn fathers of the perils of divorce court, I advise them to do whatever they can to avoid having a GAL appointed.

Anyone who has spent time within the subculture of divorce, knows lawyers (even lawyers who sometimes take GAL assignments) scoff at the guardian system as “welfare for lawyers.” You even find this scorn in writing.

For example, in 2003, after South Carolina passed the Private Guardian ad litem Reform Act, the magazine of the South Carolina Bar Association published an article by Robert Rosen, a prominent Charleston divorce attorney, titled, “Getting rid of the GAL: How to save your client from those expensive, unnecessary officious intermeddlers.”The title says it all, but let me quote:

“The biggest problem is that there is no need for guardians at all, and lawyers now have a golden opportunity (and, in my opinion, a duty to their clients) to do away with GALs in most custody cases. I have rarely been involved in a custody case in which the GAL contributed anything except to the cost.”

In 2003, The Washington Post ran a series of articles on the abuse of elderly people by court-appointed guardians in the District of Columbia. The series documented how guardians siphoned exorbitant fees from their clients (one bill reached $185,000), often did not visit their clients for years and could be kept on cases by their judge friends even when the “client” sought their dismissal.

These abuses are paralleled in child custody cases. In May 2000, for example, Dallas News station WFAA reported on guardian ad litem Kip Allison, who submitted a bill for $65,000 for 64 days work — a fee of more than $1,000 a day — to represent a 9- and 13-year-old brother and sister.

Mr. Allison acknowledged that out of the 310 hours he billed on the case, he spent only two hours talking with his child clients. But the children disputed that account. They said he had spoken with them once, for 20 minutes.

Family courts are a system of terror for parents and children. Allowing malpractice suits against GALs is a small step toward bringing one abusive aspect under control. Lawyers supporting the immunity legislation argue the new ruling will have a “chilling” effect on lawyers’ willingness to take GAL cases. If it does, that will be good for families.

Maryland lawyer-legislators would like the public to believe they are seeking immunity for lawyer-guardians “for the benefit of the children.” But they are seeking it to maintain one of family law’s rich income streams. Maryland legislators should be ashamed to vote for such a bill; and if it passes, Gov. Robert Ehrlich should have the decency to veto it.

ROBERT SEIDENBERG

Author of “The Father’s Emergency Guide to Divorce-Custody Battle: A tour through the predatory world of judges, lawyers, psychologists, and social workers in the subculture of divorce.”

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