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Under new policy, guardians ad litem must also be attorneys

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CORRECTION

The original version of this 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.

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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.

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)

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One comment

  1. If this is an illegal practice than she owes us money!!! She did the same things to me and my husband that she did to Lisa Pane Nieglar!!! My divorce took over two years and I went through a lot of the same legal tourture or as I call it legal abuse that you did. Because she is a lawyer she is untoutchable and above the law it seems!!! Benicia in my opion should not have a legal license!!!

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