HARTFORD — A group of parents who’ve struggled with Connecticut’s family court system are hoping a close judicial confirmation vote on Wednesday will send a message to the General Assembly and ultimately spark reforms of a system they argue is unfair to them.
The parents appeared Wednesday at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to vote against the reconfirmation of Superior Court Judge Leslie Olear of West Hartford, who serves in the family court system in Hartford, to a second eight-year term.
“She’s not the worst judge, but she obviously shows bias toward lawyers,” said Hector Morera, a Glastonbury father who said he has spent about $30,000 of his own money for a court-appointed advocate for children, called a guardian ad litem, and can now only afford to represent himself in his child custody case.
“We want to send a message that they should be even-handed when they follow what’s called a practice book,” Morera said.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved Olear on an unusually narrow 78-76 vote. Later in the day, she cleared the Senate on a 28-4 vote.
Last year, Connecticut created the Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children. The group looked at a variety of issues involving legal expenses in divorces and the role of guardians ad litem. Two members of that committee, Reps. Minnie Gonzalez and Edwin Vargas, both Hartford Democrats, said they were disturbed by the stories they heard from parents who’ve been bankrupted and lost their homes in an effort to gain visitation rights to their children.
“Family court needs reform,” said Vargas.
He said there needs to be a jury system in family court, limits on how much guardians ad litem earn and a code of ethics for guardians ad litem. He said the state also needs to make sure guardians ad litem are supervised and evaluated.
“Right now, if you have a complaint against your guardian ad litem, the only person you can go to is the judge who appointed them,” he said. “Good luck with that.”
Vargas said the system is not about conciliating divorcing parents.
“We’re taking about keeping parents fighting and arguing because it’s billable hours, billable hours, billable hours,” Vargas said, adding how judges are threatening to put parents in jail who can’t afford to huge fees for the guardians ad litem, experts and other court fees.
But other lawmakers who support Olear’s nomination said frustration with the system should not be taken out on the judge.
“Many of the concerns I hear are about the system. I don’t think you can have one judge legally take it upon themselves to change this system, but I think it would require some help from us and I think that’s something we can continue to discuss as the session goes on,” said Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
During the Senate debate, Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said the legislature and the Connecticut Bar Association have allowed the system to get out of control. He spoke of a friend who has spent $300,000 in court fees in his custody case.
“It’s going to be on our front door this session,” he said. “We’re going to need to work, even in this short session, as hard as we can. We cannot let this go another session.”