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Courts review guardian ad litem standards

All courts must adopt new standards by 2011

Kelly Wiese//August 7, 2009

Courts review guardian ad litem standards

All courts must adopt new standards by 2011

Kelly Wiese//August 7, 2009

How can courts ensure that guardians ad litem are paid enough to attract qualified people? What exactly are the duties of a guardian ad litem? What’s an acceptable caseload?

These are just a few of the questions a Missouri Supreme Court committee is tackling as it reviews the state’s standards for those appointed to represent children’s interests in family and juvenile court matters.

Missouri has had standards for guardians ad litem since 1996, but they are brief and general, and not all courts have adopted them. But a state law passed last year requires all circuit courts to adopt state standards, and they must have plans approved and in effect by July 2011. 

With all circuits coming onboard, it seemed a good time to review the current standards and see where changes should be made, explained Norma Rahm, interim director of the Court Programs and Research Division at the Office of State Courts Administrator.

Also, in a nod to the budget challenges courts face, the legislation expands the permitted uses of a county fund to also cover payments to guardians ad litem.

“It’s not a cure-all, but I know in my county there’s always money available,” said sponsoring Rep. Ward Franz, R-West Plains.

Every county or circuit that has established a family court has a “family services and justice fund.” Litigants in most family court cases must pay a $30 fee into the fund. It’s used to cover salaries of family court staff, but if money is left over it can also go for costs such as guardians, mediation or psychological screening.

Today, 14 circuits, among them all metropolitan courts, plus one county within the 30th Circuit, have family courts.

But St. Charles County Associate Circuit Judge Elizabeth Swann said the fund is already stretched thin, at least in her county, and can’t be relied on to improve the pay for such child advocates.

“It’s like everything else. There isn’t enough,” she said.

Franz’s legislation started as a suggestion from judges to expand the fund’s purposes. But during the legislative session, the Senate added the requirement to implement the rules statewide, and Franz agreed with the change to pass the bill.

Now Franz hears worries from some judges that they might lose good guardians ad litem because the statewide standards require lawyers to undergo formal training to fill the role. The current rules require 12 hours of training initially and then six hours a year. But to meet the 12-hour requirement, a court can accept equivalent experience instead.

On the flip side, Swann said in areas that follow the state rules now, some attorneys don’t complete the training and thus can avoid being appointed a guardian ad litem. The job often pays less than a lawyer’s typical hourly rate, and sometimes attorneys struggle to collect any payment.

Swann is leading a subcommittee studying the standards and seeking input from those involved – attorneys, litigants, children, juvenile officers and judges. They next meet Friday and hope to offer recommended changes to the full Family Court Committee by the end of the year.

“The most important thing for a guardian ad litem I think is experience,” said Kansas City attorney Corrine Corley, who does such work.

She said she went through the training years ago, but it “was nothing compared with what I’ve learned on the ground.”

Corley said a more formal and standard system could be helpful, as she sees notable differences in efficiency among courts and types of cases. Also, newer attorneys looking to be guardians don’t get assigned cases often enough to gain experience and improve, she said, and cases are concentrated among just a few well-known, qualified attorneys.

“I’ve often thought the guardian ad litem system should be more formalized, almost like the public defender system. There needs to be a formal structure,” she said.

The court committee has studied standards by the American Bar Association and other states, Swann said, and hopes to add detail to Missouri’s rules. The updated rules also will reflect a change in law passed this year that eliminated the ability for courts to appoint special advocates who are not attorneys in divorce and child custody or abuse cases.

“The current standards, they’re very short and we did not think covered everything that needed to be covered,” Swann said.

In addition to updated rules, Swann hopes her committee also will produce a suggested plan for implementing the rules, which trial courts can use as a model.

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