Lisa Payne-Naeger summed up one of the problems related to Family Court justice in Missouri in the opening paragraph of her March 30 post, Best Interests of Children Take Backseat as Bill Advances Thru Missouri Senate “Sight Unseen”:
Americans gasped when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi uttered a few words about the health care reform legislation known as ObamaCare: “We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” One year later, members of the Missouri Senate seem to be following Pelosi’s lead when it comes to legislation affecting children and families in the Show-Me State. In short, members of the Missouri Senate are planning to vote on a bill site unseen.
The focus of Lisa’s post was SB 237, introduced in the Missouri Senate Feb. 9 by Republican attorney Kurt Schaefer of Boone and Randolph Counties and co-sponsored by Democrat attorney Jolie Justus of Jackson County. It’s a bill that, if passed, will require the legislature to approve updated Missouri Supreme Court Standards for Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) representation in child welfare cases.
What’s a Guardian Ad Litem? It’s an individual — often an attorney — appointed by the courts and charged with looking out for the best interests of children involved in divorce, custody and other family relations matters handled in Family Court courtrooms.
After publishing Lisa’s post, I felt compelled to learn more about the Family Court system and the standards to which GALs are held accountable. Conversely, individuals from both the St. Louis area and across the country have deluged me with information about their experiences after reading Lisa’s post. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to share details of some of those cases. For now, I focus on the Family Court environment in Missouri.
QUESTIONS FOR THE COURT
Shortly after 10 a.m. April 11, I contacted Beth S. Riggert, communications counsel for the Supreme Court of Missouri and the judicial branch of government in the Show-Me State, to help me answer questions about GALs and the justice system within which they operate. Some 72 hours later, I had answers.
Regarding the issue of transparency, or the lack thereof, I asked Riggert if her office would make public the language in the revised standards developed by the committee headed by St. Charles County Associate Circuit Judge Elizabeth Swann.
“The Court does not release committee recommendations as it may or may not adopt them,” she replied. “The Court will release any revised standards when the Court approves them.”
Ethics & Accountability
Asked who hears complaints about GALs, Riggert explained that Section 452.423, RSMo, sets out a procedure for disqualifying GALs.
“The primary person to resolve complaints is the judge appointing the GAL,” Riggert added. “If the GAL is an attorney and, as a GAL, the attorney violates the code of professional conduct, a disciplinary case can be referred to the chief disciplinary counsel.”
When asked who determines legal and/or ethical wrongdoing and/or violations of standards by GALs, Riggert pointed to her earlier answer (i.e., the appointing judge and/or the chief disciplinary counsel).
When asked who administers disciplinary actions related to GALs determined to have engaged in legal and/or ethical wrongdoing and/or violations of GAL standards, Riggert pointed for a third time to her answer, the appointing judge and/or the chief disciplinary counsel.
I asked Riggert for an estimate of the number of attorneys in Missouri who have performed duties as GALs since Jan. 1, 2010, because I wanted to get at least one year of statistics.
“That information is not collected,” she said. “Although there is a section in our statewide case management system where the GAL is added to the case, it may not reflect all appointments and would not indicate if they are attorneys.”
Asked how many Missouri attorneys have been removed from performing duties as GALs since Jan. 1, 2010, Riggert gave another surprising answer — “That information is not captured” — which left me wondering if ANY GALs have been removed from ANY cases and if ANYONE keeps records of such removals.
Asked for details of the last time a Guardian Ad Litem attorney assigned to a case in the state of Missouri was removed from a case, she could produce none.
“The Court is not informed of such cases as removal is at the discretion of the appointing judge or pursuant to the motion of one of the parties to the case,” Riggert replied. “There is no centralized reporting of such actions.”
Same goes for Family Court judges.
“When was the last time a judge handling a Family Court case in the state of Missouri removed from a case?” I asked.
“Again, the Court is not informed of such cases as these decisions are made at the circuit court level,” Riggert said.
With no database readily available, citizens are kept in the dark when it comes to learning whether or not a GAL assigned to a Family Court case or a judge overseeing a Family Court docket has ever been removed from a case(s) and for what reason(s).
Riggert did make it a point to say “parties to a case are entitled to one change of judge upon timely request, and the request need not set out any reasons for requesting the change.”
Good luck finding someone involved in a Family Court case who was successful in requesting and being granted a change in judge. I talked with a half-dozen different parties involved in Family Court litigation in the St. Louis area, and all laughed when I mentioned that entitlement, giving me the impression that rules differ from reality.
Aware that Family Court judges nationwide redistribute tens of billions of dollars in family assets each year, I asked Riggert how GALs in Missouri are compensated for their services: “Are they paid by the respective courts within which they serve? Are they paid by the parties (i.e., legal guardians or parents) involved in the cases? Or both?”
“It depends,” Riggert said. “In (marriage) dissolutions, the GAL generally is paid by the parties. However, SB237 and section 484.350 only apply to GALs in child welfare cases. In child welfare cases, the judge approves the fees to paid to the GAL and the fee would be paid by the county. In cases to terminate parental rights, social services pays the fee.”
In speaking with the above-mentioned individuals involved in Family Court cases, I learned that GALs sometimes “double dip” or even “triple dip” — that is, they receive money from one or both litigants in a case as well as from the circuit court in which the case is being adjudicated. Such practices contribute to the financial tsunami that often hits Family Court litigants.
It’s not uncommon for individuals to spend upwards of $75,000 to $125,000 on attorneys — including those serving as GALs — in Family Court cases that sometimes last up to a decade. One person with whom I spoke had exhausted his entire life savings as well as the savings of extended family members — more than $100,000 in total — to fight for custody of his children in a case that, so far, has dragged on for more than five years.
My conclusion, after researching this topic and interviewing several people involved in Family Court cases, is that we have a transparency problem — and, very likely, an accountability problem, too — in Missouri.
Leaders of the Missouri Senate seem content voting on a measure without reading it. At the same time, GALs seem to be accountable only to the judges who appoint them, and records of removal — and, possibly, wrongdoing — on the part of those same GALs and judges are not kept in any centralized database, making them almost impossible to obtain. Without that information, litigants are kept in the dark about the key players in their cases.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This morning, I left a request for Senator Justus at Aixois, a French restaurant and coffee bar in Kansas City, where she was meeting with constituents. In addition, I sent identical “Media Query” messages to Senators Justus and Schaefer via Facebook and their Missouri Senate web sites. After waiting more than five hours for replies, however, I decided to go ahead and publish this post without their input. If, within a reasonable period of time, the senators respond to my questions, I’ll publish those replies in an update here. Below is the text of the questions contained in my electronic messages to the senators:
I understand you are a sponsor of SB 237, and I have some questions about it:
1) Have you or any other members of the Senate read the bill? If not, why?
2) What changes, if any, are contained in the revised standards for Guardian Ad Litems?
3) Will you provide me with a copy of the revised standards as they were provided to you by the committee headed by Judge Elizabeth Swann? If not, why not?
Thanks in advance!
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