Missoulians Mary Monroe, Steve Knight and Emily McKey congregate in the cramped House minority offices in Helena on a Friday evening, poring over notes from conversations with representatives and divvying up House Judiciary Committee members to contact over the weekend. Rep. Betsy Hands, D-Missoula, sits among them offering suggestions and brief tutorials on legislative process. The scene boils down to a strategy session between the folks at the core of Montanans Supporting Guardian Guidelines (MSGG) and their state representative, punctuated by talk of tweaks, cuts, amendments and careful political maneuvering.
The meeting's sole focus is House Bill 281, a bill roughly two years in the making that seeks to strengthen state laws governing guardians ad litem (GALs)—court-appointed representatives for children in custody cases. And while the introduction of Hands' bill in the legislative session marks a significant step forward in remedying the ills many parents have experienced in the court system, MSGG has come to realize it faces an uphill battle in seeing its proposals become law.
"We're not trying to create another layer of government," McKey says, referencing the concern voiced by several legislators during and after the bill's hearing before the Judiciary Committee. "The layer exists, the guardians exist, the role exists. We're just trying to make it a safe and effective role. We're not creating anything new."
The sticking point for McKey and her cohorts is the glaring lack of laws pertaining to GALs in Montana. There are currently no specific qualifications for the position, and no established grievance process exists for parents experiencing problems with their GAL. The law books are even mute on when a GAL's participation in custody proceedings should conclude.
HB 281 seeks to fill in gaps in state statute by calling for GALs to have a background in legal, mental health, domestic violence or child development services. The bill also sets practice and training standards for anyone serving as a GAL and establishes in writing a grievance process that includes review councils appointed by the separate district courts in the state.
McKey admits HB 281 is a bit "barebones" compared to what most parents would like to see.
"But it's been an education for us over the year and a half that we've worked with Betsy," McKey says. "She's helped us recognize—as have other legal professionals along the way—that this is a first step. We need to look at something that has a realistic chance of passing, so we feel this is an excellent compromise."
MSGG began in late 2008 as a support group for Missoula-area parents who felt themselves the victims of GAL oversights or outright abuses. The organization quickly blossomed into an initiative aimed at implementing clear guidelines for GALs and gathered membership not only from across the state but from across the professional spectrum. Attorneys, judges, therapists, GALs and University of Montana researchers have all worked with MSGG to come to some consensus on what rules would best guide the practice.
"All of us as mental health professionals and attorneys, we all have to have ongoing, continuing education," says Knight, a Missoula-based social worker who has extensive experience dealing with GALS, and who approached Hands about drafting legislation. "It keeps us current on new developments and new information, and when there are guardians who don't have an interest in having ongoing training it concerns me, because we could always learn more."
Yet proponents of HB 281 witnessed a combination of hesitancy, misunderstanding and flat-out opposition during the bill's Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 24. MSGG and others provided lengthy personal and professional testimony supporting the need for GAL guidelines. Hands said the first hour proved incredibly moving, but the bill still has to contend with concerns that mandated training would make it harder to find interested GAL candidates and that the grievance process could establish an unconstitutional disciplinary procedure for attorneys serving as GALs. The latter is the primary reason that the Montana Bar Association does not currently support HB 281.
"We're subject to the rules of the courts and the jurisdiction of the courts," Bruce Spencer, liaison for the Montana Bar's board of trustees, said during the hearing. "The state bar feels very strongly that this bill and its grievance procedure takes us out of that scheme of regulation through the courts...and puts us in the hands of some sort of committee. For those reasons, we oppose the bill and urge at least that portion of it not to pass."
MSGG faces legislative negotiations in the days and weeks ahead, but did claim a small victory in Missoula late last month. On Jan. 21, the Fourth Judicial District Court officially adopted a list of 12 guidelines for GALs in Missoula County. Those guidelines mostly define the roles and responsibilities of a GAL in the district, and McKey believes they will help solve some of the problems parents have experienced in the past. They're "not all that we'd like to see in place," she says, but she and those with MSGG are glad that the local court system—specifically District Court Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, who pioneered the document—is finally acknowledging longstanding concerns.
"There are cases where the guardian never met the child," McKey says. "There are cases where the guardian met the child very briefly once and years later is still making recommendations...So yes, we're very heartened to see what's here. It's a terrific first step, but there's a lot missing."
The changes have done little to distract from the bigger picture, however. With the group's network growing outside the Missoula area, MSGG now understands that the fight is no longer local.
"If [HB 281] doesn't go through, it is just the beginning," Monroe says on the steps inside the Capitol shortly after meeting with Hands.
"We're starting to represent the state," McKey adds. "And not just Missoula."