Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill Friday that makes a series of changes to Connecticut’s family court system, which has been heavily criticized by some parents.
Senate Bill 494 would provide greater clarity to court orders involving the appointment of guardians ad litem for a minor child. Such guardians are sometimes appointed by judges in contentious divorce cases.
Some parents caught in the system say they have been forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars or more for the services of the guardians, and those legal fees sometimes led to bankruptcy. Others lost access to their children.
Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a Hartford Democrat who has long advocated for reforming the guardian ad litem protocol, called the bill “a good start.”
Gonzalez thanked her colleagues on both sides of the aisle. “Working together we can put a more human face on the system,” she said.
A legislative task force has been studying the system and examining the role of guardians ad litem. In a series of hearings, dozens of parents have come to the Capitol to vent their frustration and demand change.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said the bill would “add some structure” to the system by clearly delineating what the guardians role is, how much they are to be paid and who overseas their work.
The bill, which now goes to the Gov. Daniel P. Malloy for consideration, would set up a system to choose guardians ad litem if the parties to a family court case cannot agree. Within 21 days, a judge would issue order detailing the scope of work and a deadline for guardians to report back to the court.
And for the first time, the bill also gives the parties to a family court case legal standing to seek the removal of guardians.
“This has been a point of great contention and insistence by the advocates of reform who were frustrated because some of them…believed some guardians ad litem were biased, retaliatory and they even felt at times that the system was corrupt,” Coleman said.
John McKinney, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said the bill is a modest first step toward fixing a system “that has fallen apart.”
“I don’t know if this will fix the problem completely–in fact, I don’t think it will,” McKinney said. “But I think this is going to be a very good start to get us to the fix. I know the judicial branch cares about this at the highest levels.”