Q: Where did you go to law school and when did you graduate?
A: I went to the University of Maine Law School and I graduated in 1997.
Q: You are now at Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine. Can you explain what Pine Legal Assistance is?
A: We are a statewide organization that provides legal services to low-income Mainers.
Q: What do you do at Pine Tree?
A: I am an attorney on a three-year fellowship, named after Senator Muskie. The fellowship goals are to provide direct guardian ad litem representation to low-income children and to author a report evaluating the use of guardians ad litem in family law cases.
Q: Can you briefly explain what a guardian ad litem does?
A: A guardian ad litem is appointed by the court in either a child protective, family law or probate case. In my situation it is family law cases. The court appoints a guardian ad litem to act as the representative of the child's best interests, which means that the attorney, or whoever is serving as the guardian ad litem, is not acting in an attorney-client relationship but is acting in a quasi-judicial role of representing the child's interests before the court in any legal proceeding.
Q: You have been involved with the Guardian ad litem Project. How did that project come about?
A: Four or five years ago, District Court Judge David Kennedy, a case management officer at the time, wrote a letter to a number of stakeholders in the legal services community and the court system. His letter called out for the need for guardians ad litem in low-income family law cases. There is no state entitlement and are no funds to pay for guardians ad litem in family law cases, unlike probate and child protective.
He issued this cry and, because of that, the director of Pine Tree Legal and I started bringing people together to discuss how we could address that need. A staff attorney position was created at Pine Tree to represent a small population of the children and also to address the policy piece in hopes that the policy statement could call attention to the problem and could recommend solutions to this need.
Q: And that led to your research?
A: That's right.
Q: How did you formulate a plan to conduct the research? What was the model you used?
A: We came up with our own model. When this fellowship was created there was a committee in the court system in the district court called the Guardian ad litem Committee, which has now been renamed. I was appointed to that committee. Many of its members are experienced guardians ad litem or people who have been involved with them for a long time; and they served as an editorial/supervisory committee, as well as some of the very experienced attorneys here at Pine Tree Legal.
They assisted me in coming up with surveys and with the types of questions we would be looking at. Probably, most important was a consulting company out of New Jersey that assisted us in the data compilation and data analysis. That company helped us format the questions.
Q: How did you gather your information?
A: The report is based on four major studies. The first was a survey sent out to all guardians ad litem in the state who are rostered with the district court judges. Then we surveyed family law attorneys who are registered with the Maine State Bar Association and we surveyed the district court judges and case management officers. The fourth piece was my direct experience of providing direct guardian ad litem representation in the trenches for two years.
Q: And you conducted interviews?
A: I did a series of interviews with people who were known to have a particular interest and expertise in guardian ad litem work. Those interviews were used to clarify some of the research and to figure out what kind of questions to ask the judges.
Q: I have read the report and it's fairly easy to read.
A: Frank (D'Alessandro) and I worked really hard. We really wanted it to be user friendly and to be readable to those who don't do guardian ad litem work or those who may not be attorneys.
Q: What did the research reveal?
A: There are two basic issues: issues related to quality of guardian ad litem representation and issues related to access.
Let me backtrack for a second. Since we've published the report and have sent it to people around the country, what has been amazing to me is that people have stated that nothing like this had ever been done. No one has actually looked at guardians ad litem in family law cases. There have been many reviews of the child protective system and how guardians ad litem fit into that, but no one's really done this kind of state-specific review.
Now that we've done it once, we'd do it differently again. We have learned a lot. There were a lot of questions we should have asked differently to get better data. We could have had stronger findings. I think the research is extremely helpful in that it gives more information than we've ever had. I would say, it's amazing what you learn after you finish.
Q: The research could be reviewed and updated every ten years.
A: That's right. And certainly we would hope that anybody who is going to do that would learn from our mistakes.
In terms of the data, it was clear throughout that experience makes a huge difference in the quality of representation. It's not to say that people who are new aren't doing good guardian ad litem work or that people who have been doing it for ten years are doing it well. The data does show that one's ability to settle cases, to have recommendations accepted by the court and by the parties, the amount of time one actually spends with children, all of those things look better the more experience one has. Sometime between the tenth and thirtieth case one sees an increased efficiency in performance.
Q: I'm sure you can see it with your own experience.
A: Absolutely. Although, I do feel that because I was at Pine Tree and had incredibly talented and dedicated poverty lawyers supervising me, my learning curve was better. But some of it is that you have to do it to learn. In every case you learn something new and how you could do it better. We don't think this is counterintuitive. It's just that no one had looked at it before.
Q: What about the access piece?
A: All of us who practice understand and have always known that there was an unmet need with low-income families. What we didn't know was the size and the scope of the need. We found agreement on two points. Guardians ad litem are not necessary in every family law case involving low-income kids. And, guardians ad litem are needed in high conflict cases, where the parties are unable to communicate and where the judges and case management officers are unable to work with the parties in any way to fashion a remedy that is in the best interest of the child.
That was interesting because we were not sure that would happen. Many other states do provide guardians ad litem to every child. So it was interesting to find out that the people surveyed did not believe that was a way to make the system better.
The other finding was the actual ability to quantify how many kids need representation a year to solve the problem. And, we came up with the number of 500 to 850 cases a year that need guardians ad litem throughout the State of Maine.
Q: Do you know what percentage that is?
A: There are about 9000 filings a year with children.
Q: So it's about ten per cent.
A: That's right. On the one hand, it's a very manageable percentage. On the other hand, given how poor the State of Maine is and how under-funded the judiciary is, it's enormous.
Q: What were the conclusions and the recommendations?
A: The conclusion, for the judiciary and for members of the public, is that we have to confront both quality and access. You shouldn't do one without the other. Ultimately, we have to make a decision in the community that it's not acceptable for kids to go through these high conflict cases without some voice.
And we did make some recommendations as to how we could minimize cost to make it more palpable to the legislature, or whoever, and ways of being more creative with appointments. We also called for an increase in training quality and oversight.
The research clearly shows that guardians are calling out for more training. They are not resistant to it. Most guardians ad litem feel that they need more training. We called on those people who organize the training that that's what is needed. And we had hoped there wouldn't be much resistance to that, given that people overwhelmingly wanted more.
We said that this was not intended to be an advocacy piece. It was an attempt to do research that hadn't been done before and to make some generic recommendations. But, it is really for other people to decide how to handle these findings.
Q: Any surprises?
A: I was surprised to see the overwhelming response with regard to the need for guardians ad litem in high conflict cases. I was surprised that there was such uniformity. Also, the scope of our duties is so much broader than what is contemplated by the legislature, the statute and the rules set forth by the Supreme Judicial Court.
Guardians ad litem are playing many different roles in these families. The assumption that a guardian ad litem is a legal mouthpiece for a child in court is completely inaccurate. We're working with parents, we're working with kids, we're working with teachers, we're working with social workers, we're working with whoever will help us to try to reduce conflict and put a family in a situation that will allow the family to get through a divorce or a separation. To focus on the children, we often need to work with many other providers. Although I knew that from my own work, I think it was interesting to see that there was a unity of voices, even among people who aren't working with low-income families.
Q: When parents don't have attorneys, when they are pro se, then the report mentioned that guardians ad litem have more work?
A: They have more work. One of our concerns is that they have more power. In cases with no attorney representation, the guardian ad litem may be the only professional that's involved in the case and, if the guardian is well educated, which she is, it is quite easy to manage the system. I don't mean to mention any bad intention from the guardian ad litem; but, when you don't have oversight and you don't have other attorneys to review the case, then you have the situation of a low-income family with a guardian ad litem, who has a lot of influence with the court. And that is of concern.
Q: What has been the response to the report?
A: The response has been terrific. We had great press coverage at the time. We were very happy that Chief Justice Saufley mentioned the report in her State of the Judiciary. Although she did not make any specific requests, she certainly gave top priority to providing quality representation for children.
We've had a lot of interest from the private bar. One of the most exciting things is the nationwide interest. The American Bar Association requested sixty copies of the report for projects all over the country. Every state in some fashion is grappling with this issue. What do you do in the family law context when there's usually no state monies allocated to pay for a guardian ad litem? These cases are becoming more and more complicated and they are often precursors to abuse and neglect cases. And, even if they are not, the conflict is so high that the impact on these children is life long. Judges, attorneys, advocates are looking for ways to protect kids. So, the interest from other states has been exciting.
Q: Have you seen any specific action being taken?
A: The judiciary did have a position that was redefined so that sixty percent of the time is dedicated to working on the Guardian ad litem Project and training issues. That's been very positive. And that person has been newly hired. The Guardian ad litem Committee, which is no longer called the Guardian ad litem Committee, is still addressing those issues and how to implement some of these recommendations.
Q: What is the name of the new committee?
A: The Court Services Committee.
Q: Underlying all this is the funding issue. Is anyone talking to the legislature?
A: We never intended to take this any further than presenting the information to those people who actually have the power. We hope that people will pick this up ... the bar association or members of the legislature or judges. It is out of our hands whether that will happen.
Q: The report is titled A Voice for Low-income Children. How does one get a copy of the report?
A: Contact Pine Tree Legal. It is also on the web at The Muskie School web site.
[Editor's note: The Muskie School web page is www.muskie.usm.maine.edu. The report can be viewed in pdf format.]
Q: What is the single best benefit to appointing a guardian ad litem in a low-income case?
A: Appointing a qualified competent guardian ad litem who understands poverty issues can be instrumental in assisting the family to navigate that terrible couple of years while the parents separate. I think it's important that people understand that poverty piece. Poverty does not equal neglect, although, it can be a problem. An advocate for the child can be a steadying force in a family's life.