Thursday, February 17, 2011

In support of HB 281

Posted on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 4:00 AM

We want to thank Alex Sakariassen for “Grassroots guardians” (see Feb. 3, 2011), his follow-up article to “Guiding the guardians” (see Oct. 1, 2009), and educating the general public on Rep. Betsy Hands and Montanans Supporting Guardian Guidelines’ daunting work to gain support for House Bill 281, a much-needed law to revise statutes for guardians ad litem.

To represent the interests of children whose parents are undergoing a contentious divorce or legal separation is the over-riding goal of a court-appointed guardian ad litem. With this charge, guardians are vested with extraordinary power. As the primary intermediary between the court and children in custody cases, and because they report to and make recommendations directly to the district judge, guardians have significant influence over the district judge’s ruling.

One would think individuals hired to protect children would be required to have earned at least a relevant four-year degree, undergo continuing education and submit to regulatory oversight as do the majority of those who work with and intercede on behalf of vulnerable children. Not so in Montana. No specific qualifications for this position exist other than that one possesses a high school diploma. Continuing education that could enhance guardians’ effectiveness is only voluntary. No specified timeline, as Sakariassen further notes, exists for when a guardian’s “participation in custody proceedings should conclude”—justifiably disturbing since judges typically rule in favor of joint custody, and since one or both parents shoulder the crushing burden of often exorbitant guardian fees charged on top of attorney, mental health and other ancillary fees in cases that sometimes stretch into years. No objective, standardized system of oversight exists to prevent or discourage guardians who may be tempted to misuse their power over children in their care.

While few would object to HB 281’s entirely rational call to institute requirements for relevant educational background in mental health, domestic violence or child development and continuing education for prospective guardians, opponents of the bill have stressed what they view as imposing “another layer of government” that could dissuade people from becoming or staying on as a guardian. In a state with thriving schools of social work and an abundance of college graduates hungry for meaningful life work in a beautiful state, might the specter of vanishing guardians ad litem become moot once professional qualifications, standard guidelines and objective oversight are given structural substance, so those interested in the profession know what to strive toward?

For the sake of families, not only in Missoula but throughout Montana, who struggle with the crippling price of lengthy proceedings and drawn-out anguish due to the absence of needed standards, we support negotiations that enhance clarity, strength and structure to this critical bill. We advocate unequivocally for the passage of HB 281.

Maria Ibarbia

Missoula Business and Professional Women’s Association

Milltown

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