GAL panel gets ball rolling

Between exhaustive presentations on DUI-related topics early this week, the Legislature's Law and Justice Interim Committee in Helena set aside just under two hours to hear a less familiar concern over the lack of adequate laws governing guardians ad litem (GAL) in Montana courts.

A six-member panel headed by Rep. Betsy Hands, D-Missoula, went before the committee Monday afternoon to outline a rash of problems currently undermining the court system's representation of children in custody cases. The panel is the first small step for Hands in her push to draft legislation for 2011 that would guide GAL practices.

"We've got a lot of steps ahead of us before I really know where it's at for the legislation," Hands says, "but I know that the legislators definitely understood that our [existing] statute is very vague."

One concern raised by the committee was the present lack of information regarding just how widespread GAL malpractice is in the state. Panelist Ellen Bush, executive director for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Montana, got the impression Monday that legislators "were hoping that it was more of a local issue" that local courts could handle on their own. However, she believes grievances with the GAL system are more widespread.

"It's probably larger than Missoula," Bush says. "I know people will occasionally call my office to ask about how they can file a complaint."

Bush called Monday's presentation a success on at least one point. The reputation of CASA programs in the state has suffered to some degree due to confusion over how they differ from court-affiliated GALs. Bush had the opportunity to clarify that CASA does not act in custody cases and has stringent guidelines for its personnel.

Hands felt the panel was a strong introduction for her intentions in 2011. And while Hands says there's still much work to be done—focus groups, statewide outreach measures, and a public hearing this fall—she notes increased participation by those who have witnessed the problems with the GAL system firsthand. It's an emotional and risky move for everyone involved, she says.

"People still hesitate at times, because if they're in a case they can't really participate," Hands says. "It's really risky for them to participate as a parent or as a guardian or a practicing attorney."

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