$300 an hour?! Family Court Investigators Draw Renewed Scrutiny

(WTNH) — Alex Seretny knew he wanted to be a part of the military.

“It was always something I was curious to myself about. Can I do this? After 9/11, I said, I want to do this.”

After three tours of duty in Afghanistan, he received a bronze star and a purple heart.

He is, by all accounts, a war hero.

That time overseas cost him at home. Seretny’s marriage failed. When he came back to Connecticut, another battle began.

“We were released on a Friday and Monday morning I showed up in a courtroom,” said Seretny.

On a soldiers salary, Seretny could not afford an attorney. A family court judge had a solution to the custody dispute: Assign a Guardian Ad Litem.

A Guardian Ad Litem is a special investigator assigned to family court cases to represent the best interest of the child. In essence, A GAL’s job is to review the family life of both mom and dad and recommend to the family court where the best place for the child or children is.

According to statistics provided by the Judicial Branch, Guardian Ad Litems have been assigned to five percent of the family court cases. 1,234 assignments among the 23,500 family court cases, which excludes restraining order cases.

Seretny was charged $300 an hour for his GAL. He never tallied up his total bill.

“Honestly, I don’t want to put the numbers together because I don’t want to know what that number might be.”

The number is almost $4,000 between Seretny and his ex-wife. According to bills provided by Seretny, the hours charged are for writing letters, listening to voicemails, a single meeting with each parent and court preparation.

“It’s frustrating,” said Seretny. “It was supposed to be a representative for my daughter. That did not happen.”

Others have tallied up their bills to Guardian Ad Litems.

“So far, [my Guardian Ad Litem] has billed $131,000,” said Susan Skipp.

“Out of pocket, [my bills] have probably been $200 or $250,000,” said Peter Nicita.

Nicita’s divorce has lasted close to a decade. In 2004, he was held in contempt of court for not paying his GAL $8,000.

He would stay there for three days.

Currently, there is no way to file a grievance against Guardian Ad Litem’s. Parents find work arounds by using the Judicial Grievance Panel setup for attorneys.

“It’s obscene what happens,” said Jennifer Verraneault, a GAL and member of a 2014 committee put together to write new rules for Guardian Ad Litems.

The legislature passed just a few changes in Senate Bill 494.

Among the changes, parents now have to see a list of 15 names of Guardian Ad Litems to choose from. Pay for Guardian Ad Litems is now determined by how much parents make.

Verraneault says sometimes even those rules aren’t being followed. The real oversight was gutted from the bill before it was voted on.

“it didn’t go as far as we wanted it to”

In Seretny’s case, the Guardian Ad Litem resigned. According to court transcripts, because the bills weren’t being paid.

Seretny’s Guardian Ad Litem did not return six calls to her office for comment. None of the 25 Guardian Ad Litems contacted by News8 would comment.

Family court officials initially agreed to an on camera interview before declining, saying the issue was too “raw” for parents.

Spokeswoman Melissa Farley did answer questions via email:

Question: Why is there one way to complain about a GAL if they’re an attorney, but not a blanket system to oversee behavior in a courtroom?

Answer: It is the role of the judge presiding over a matter to oversee the work that a GAL does and his/her behavior in the courtroom. It should be noted that GALs do not have clients, like attorneys do. Their sole responsibility is to act as an arm of the court and to represent the best interest of the child.

Complaints against GALs who are attorneys have been filed with the Statewide Grievance Committee; however, many of the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct do not apply to attorneys in their role as GALs, as they do not have a client and many of the rules pertain to the attorney/client relationship. The Judicial Branch has been discussing a mechanism by which complaints that GALs have violated the GAL Code of Conduct may be reviewed. Such a mechanism has not yet been established.

Additionally, should a parent file a motion to remove a GAL, the judge then has the opportunity to consider and review the GAL’s performance and conduct, whether the GAL is an attorney or not. If the court finds that the GAL has failed to comply with the code of conduct or the orders of the court, the court has the authority to remove the GAL.

Question: Why doesn’t the Judicial branch have the ability to review GAL billed hours?

The judge does have the ability to review hours billed and fees charged by a GAL. In addition, one of the items that can be reviewed at the time of the periodic reviews is the fee. But the issue has to be brought to the court’s attention by the parties or their lawyer. If a party has concerns about GAL billed hours, he or she should file a motion with the court and ask that the bills be reviewed.

Question: Has there been an instance where a GAL/AMC has had the title pulled or had their case load reviewed?

The Judicial Branch has carefully reviewed the original list of 1,000 GALs and has removed any individual not in good standing with their respective licensing board and also removed all those individuals who either have indicated they no longer wish to serve or failed to provide the Branch with necessary updated information. There are currently approximately 384 individuals who are eligible to serve as GALs.

On Friday, the News8 Investigators talk to lawmakers who say the issue of Guardian Ad Litems will be revisited in the next legislative session.

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