HARTFORD — Four years later, Hector Morera has learned just how expensive a divorce and child custody court case in Connecticut can be.
Although he is representing himself, the 46-year-old father of two from Glastonbury said he has had to pay about $30,000 for a court-appointed advocate for the children called a guardian ad litem, costs that have helped wipe out his retirement savings account. And he still doesn’t know exactly what the guardian ad litem is supposed to be doing, he said.
“You will spend whatever you have to spend for your children,” Morera said. But, he added, “My biggest problem is ... you don’t know whether you’re getting your money’s worth if you don’t know what the guardian ad litem’s role is.”
Morera and other parents across the country have been complaining for years about the costs of divorce and child custody cases. New efforts, however, are underway in Connecticut and other states to address those concerns.
This year, Connecticut created the Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children, which will look at a variety of issues including legal expenses and the role of guardians ad litem. Maryland has a similar committee, while other states are considering new mediation programs and other measures.
“I think that it is a national problem, not only in terms of the guardian ad litem costs but child custody legal costs are out of control in some circumstances,” said Columbus, Ohio, attorney Scott Friedman, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section. “This is affecting people whether they’re having to go into debt ... or raiding accounts that were saved for college funds or things in the future.”
Guardians ad litem are appointed by judges in juvenile cases and family cases to represent the interests of minor children and make recommendations to the courts about visitation, custody and other issues.
Even after divorces are granted, court cases can continue for years with disputes over child custody, child support, alimony and other issues. Parents can face an array of costs in addition to hiring lawyers, including having to pay guardians ad litem, psychologists, social workers and people who oversee supervised visitations.
Elaine Mickman, of Penn Valley, Pa., near Philadelphia, said legal costs in her divorce and child custody case have totaled about $1 million, including $125,000 for experts including a guardian ad litem and four psychologists. The mother of three adults and two minors said she’s worried about losing her home because she’s running out of money.
“They really socked it to me in every way possible,” she said. “We have spent a fortune.”
Some parents allege many family court systems are corrupt, with judges in cahoots with lawyers, guardians ad litem and other experts to profit from families’ hardships.
Jennifer Verraneault, a member of the Connecticut task force and a certified guardian ad litem, said at the panel’s second meeting on Thursday that the state’s system needs reform. Morera was among about a dozen people in the audience during the meeting.
“It’s been a very long and sad journey as I have watched for over seven years this broken system affect the lives of hundreds of children and families in Connecticut,” Verraneault told the task force. “I have witnessed deception, manipulation, cronyism.”
State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford and a task force member, said she didn’t understand why many guardians ad litem, who don’t have to be attorneys, are charging lawyer-like rates of $300 to $400 an hour. She is calling for lower, standardized fees.
The state Judicial Branch does not track the number of times guardians ad litem are appointed for family cases each year or how much they charge. Such appointments are not required; it’s up to a judge to decide whether one is warranted. Task force members already are recommending better data collection by judicial officials.
The task force has scheduled a number of meetings and public hearings at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford through Feb. 1, its deadline for submitting recommendations to the legislature.