The legislative auditor’s evaluation report of the Minnesota Guardian Ad Litem Program issued last month left some important child-focused points on the cutting-room floor (“Abused kids on their own in court,” March 24). As a district judge who has relied on the invaluable services provided by guardians for more than two decades, I want to fill in some gaps so that parents, concerned citizens and legislators have a better picture of why, on the ground level, this system is broken.
Guardians ad litem are highly trained and talented women and men who care very deeply about the best interests of the children who are the subjects of their caseloads. Primarily, the cases fall into two categories: 1) juvenile court cases involving allegations by the county of abuse or neglect by an adult in the household, and 2) family court cases involving allegations by one parent of physical or sexual assault of a joint-custody child by the other parent or another person in the other parent’s household. If true, either situation can result in what sociologists call an “adverse childhood experience” suffered by the youngsters involved. Many studies, of which the Centers for Disease Control-Kaiser Permanente Study is but one, find that multiple exposures to adverse childhood experiences are related to increased instances of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide attempts in adult life. The importance of dealing with serious abuse and neglect as expeditiously and expertly as possible cannot be overstated.
Juvenile and family court cases call on two distinct guardian skill sets. In both, guardians are the eyes and ears of the court, appointed by judges to undertake investigative duties we cannot conduct ourselves, such as interviewing family members and collateral contacts and researching psychological, treatment and criminal histories. Yet in juvenile court cases, guardians frequently work in tandem with the county social worker in an effort to reunify parents and children by resolving conditions that led to placement of children outside of the home. Often the social worker concentrates on services provided to the parent, while the guardian focuses on services to ensure the protection and nurturing of the children. The guardian’s work requires an ability to gain the confidence of children and a vast knowledge of available community resources to address their specific needs.
In stark contrast, family court cases, including domestic abuse orders for protection, marriage dissolutions and custody disputes between unmarried parents, almost always present highly elevated levels of adversity between one parent, the accuser, and the other parent, the accused. As an expert reporting to the court, the guardian’s role is to gather as much information from as many sources as possible and make recommendations to protect the immediate safety and security of the child(ren). Based on this report as well as other evidence submitted by the parties, the judge then decides the custody and parenting time arrangements that are in the best interests of the children while the family court proceeding is pending. The guardian’s investigative task is a demanding one, but essential to the judge who must decide whether the accusations have any merit or whether, at the other extreme, the child(ren) is being manipulated, or worse, weaponized against the other parent.
The need for skilled guardians who can respond to crisis situations could not be clearer. Unfortunately, that need is often unmet because the existing system fails to treat guardians as the professionals they are. Notwithstanding the fact that guardians are required, at a minimum, to have a college degree (and many have master’s degrees), the vast majority of them are paid far less than what I pay for yard work. Consequently, they frequently leave for higher-paying positions. For example, as social workers they can make double what they are paid as guardians. It is not unheard of for a case lasting a year to have three or more guardians because of turnover. Should they decide to set up their own practice as a custody evaluator, people of this skill set could easily charge $4,000 to $10,000 per case. The financial reality, therefore, is that turnover hurts the same kids the program is supposed to help.
The legislative auditor’s report was silent on pay scale and turnover, yet these issues are as important to the failures of the program as its inability to keep up with the dramatic increase in statewide caseload. It is true that many judges, including me, realizing the fact that there is a backlog, have engaged in triage by not appointing in cases that under statute require a guardian. In my district, the judges took a proactive approach and adopted a policy to discharge guardians as rapidly as possible on a case-by-case basis, freeing them up to accept new cases. We were rewarded for that effort by having one of our guardians reassigned to another judicial district with a higher backlog.
In my view, shared by many of my colleagues on the bench, the guardian ad litem program will not be fixed until these professionals are paid a respectable wage and their workforce has been stabilized, in addition to increasing their ranks to meet the need dictated by statute. Until that happens, the judicial system is devaluing the lives of the children who are victims of abuse and neglect and whose safety we are charged with protecting.
Susan R. Miles is assistant chief judge in Washington County District Court.