- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - In a story Jan. 30 about a Connecticut task force considering reforms to child custody cases, The Associated Press reported erroneously on the actions taken by the panel regarding the fees that some guardians can collect. The task force recommended that the state Judicial Branch consider setting a maximum amount for the fees; it didn’t recommend capping the fees or say that state lawmakers should determine the maximum.

A corrected version of the story is below.

Reforms sought to Conn. child custody cases

Conn. task force: judiciary should consider capping fees of court-appointed guardians in child custody cases

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - A state task force is recommending reforms to child custody cases in state courts, including a review of whether courts should limit child guardian fees that many parents say are wiping out their finances.

The Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children, which was created by the legislature last year, met in Hartford on Thursday to finalize recommendations it plans to submit to state lawmakers Friday. The panel looked a variety of issues, including how high legal costs are hurting families, and voted on more than 90 proposals.

The panel held an emotional, nearly 15-hour public hearing earlier this month, Parents in child custody disputes complained that they were forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars on guardians who are appointed by judges to represent the interests of children and make recommendations to the courts about visitation, custody and other issues. The law doesn’t require such appointments.

The task force recommended that the state Judicial Branch examine whether to set a maximum amount of fees that guardians can collect and to require guardians to ask permission to charge fees above the cap.

Members also rejected a proposal that would allow judges to reduce the guardians’ fees when parents’ ability to pay declined.

During a task force meeting in October, state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford and a member of the panel, said she didn’t understand why many guardians, who aren’t required to be attorneys, were charging lawyer-like rates of $300 to $400 an hour. She called for lower, standardized fees.

Parent advocates say high family court case costs are a national problem, and other states also are looking at ways to reduce expenses.

The Connecticut panel on Thursday also rejected a proposal favored by many parents: to amend state law to say that there is a legal presumption of shared custody on an equal or near-equal time and decision-making basis. The law says there is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of children, when the parents agree to joint custody.

Some task force members were upset that that recommendation wasn’t approved, saying it would prevent some parents in contested custody cases from unfairly getting less time with their kids.

“I hope nobody gets divorced here,” task force member Jennifer Verraneault said after the panel voted down the shared custody presumption.

The panel also has faced questions about its makeup. The co-chairwomen, Susan Cousineau and Sharon Wicks Dornfeld, both work as child guardians.

“It appears an obvious and deleterious conflict of interest exists in the very appointment of co-chairs who are so deeply entrenched and beholden to the very system in sore need of a transplant,” Daniel Lynch of Trumbull said in testimony submitted to the task force earlier this month.

Dornfeld rejected claims that she and Cousineau have no incentive to change the guardian system. She pointed to the panel’s recommendations, which include the proposed review on whether to cap guardian fees. Cousineau declined to comment Thursday.

“People can say that, but they’re saying that without knowing and without understanding what’s going on and how to make things better,” Dornfeld said.

The panel approved a host of other recommendations, including setting general standards of conduct for child guardians and giving self-represented parents information online and in booklets describing the roles, duties and compensation of the guardians.

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