Commission gives “Family Re-Engineering” Committee a pass on transparency
The Freedom of Information Commission ruled in September that a Judicial Branch subcommittee was not in violation of the Freedom of Information Act when it held several meetings that were closed to the public. The guardian ad litem subcommittee is part of the Judicial Branch’s “Family Re-Engineering Committee.” The Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, Chase T. Rogers, tasked the subcommittee with proposing reforms to Connecticut family law and court practices.
The commission’s decision on September 28th stated that the GAL subcommittee and its parent committee “were not acting as public agencies” when they met three separate times over the course of 2015 to propose changes to how GALs are appointed and monitored.
Unlike other states, Connecticut’s GALs and attorneys for the minor child are not public employees but are private individuals who have completed a training course and are assigned by the courts. The GALs are paid for by the parents of the child. This can result in very large sums of money paid for by parents in the middle of a divorce hearing.
“I really believe on these questions the freedom of information law applies,” said Mark Sargent, an attorney representing the complainant, Dan Lynch.
Sargent says there is currently no oversight of GALs or AMCs, who have legal immunity in how they operate and “no limitation on what they can do.”
Judicial committees are not subject to public disclosure due to a provision in the Freedom Of Information law which limits information requests from the judicial branch to “administrative functions” only. The FOIC determined the respondents “were not acting as public agencies when they convened those meetings” because they were not discussing administrative matters such as “budget, personnel, facilities and physical operations.”
Daniel Klau, an attorney and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said “these meetings should be open to the public. They are not adjudicative and are not specific cases.”
Klau also says that the judicial branch is not required to have closed-door meetings on these subjects and there is precedent for holding public judicial meetings. In 2006, the Judicial Branch Public Access Task Force held public meetings in an effort to determine the limits of judicial information.
FOI minimum standards are set by state statute. “The court should remind itself that it handled itself openly and candidly in that instance and can do so again,” Klau said.
When reached for comment, the Judicial Department reiterated the findings of the FOI Commission and pointed out that it released the agendas and minutes of the subcommittee’s meetings when it issued its final report in January of 2016.
The hearing before the commission is part of a larger movement by groups in Connecticut to change the way family cases are handled by the court system. GALs and AMCs are assigned during custody battles in order to protect “the best interest of the child.” However some groups claim the system is “horribly broken” and the “Family Court judges are routinely raiding children’s college funds, parents’ retirement accounts, and every other asset a family may have available.”
When the issue of GALs came before a public hearing in 2014 a large number of people arrived to testify and prompted the passage of a bill which required new requirements and procedures for the appointment of GALs. However, affected parents didn’t feel the bill did enough.
In an effort to address these issues, the judicial branch created the “Family Re-engineering Committee” which in turn created the GAL Subcommittee. However, the existence of these committees was not made public until December of 2015, when the GAL Subcommittee posted a draft report online to garner public comment. “At that point, other citizens with an interest in family law reform and I realized that the two committees existed and had been meeting in secret,” Sargent said .
Peter Szymonik, an advocate for family court reforms who testified in the 2014 public hearing, says the biggest problem with the draft report was that it maintained the status quo. “They invited attorneys to work with them but not the public and they ignored all our recommendations.”
The GALs and AMCs are paid by for by the parents in the custody hearings based on a sliding scale of the parents’ income. Parents with a combined gross income between $39,000 and $50,000, for instance, are charged between $75 and $100 per hour and rises to $225 per hour for parents whose income approaches $100,000. However, the scale doesn’t apply to families whose income is higher than $100,000 at which point the charges can range from $300 – $500 per hour, according to figures compiled by Szymonik and submitted for review in his 2014 testimony.
Szymonik says the scale is evidence that charges for a GAL’s service is based on how much a parent can pay rather than the true cost of service. “The GAL is supposed to do research on the child for the judge based on 16 criteria points, so why would the bill for services be so radically different from one family to another?”
The judicial branch does not maintain a record of GAL or AMC costs incurred by parents. In one case, an Attorney for a Minor Child assigned to a custody case filed a motion in 2014 to collect $342,084.75. The mother of the child was ordered by the court to sell a property in Florida to pay for the attorney’s bill.
The draft report recommended establishing a “standing committee on Guardians ad Litem and Attorneys for the Minor Child,” which would approve training curriculums and review minimum qualifications for a GAL or an AMC.
The report also recommended that GALs and AMCs provide proof that they do not have a criminal record and are not on the central registry for child abuse and neglect.
“The judicial branch, to their credit, is trying to do something,” Sargent says. “But they operate in complete secrecy and it effects an enormous number of people.”
This story incorrectly cited Peter Szymonik as an attorney and has been changed.