Hugh McQuaid photo
Jean-Pierre Bolat, a divorced father of three from Wallingford (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Legislation changing how child custody cases are handled in Connecticut courts drew emotional testimony Monday from parents who feel wronged by the people the court assigns to represent their children.

The bill involves “guardians ad litem” who are assigned to represent the interest of minors in contentious custody battles. Last year, the legislature created a task force to study the system, which critics say lacks oversight and often leads to soaring legal expenses for parents. Some of the group’s recommendations were incorporated in the legislation, which allows parents to seek the removal of a guardian.

But some of the parents in the hearing room Monday said the bill does not go far enough because it does not create an oversight mechanism for GALs and it does not cap how much money they can earn working on individual cases.

During the hearing, a comment from one parent elicited applause from those in the audience. Sen. Eric Coleman, the committee’s co-chairman, asked those in attendance to refrain from clapping. When it was his turn to testify, Jean-Pierre Bolat, a divorced father of three from Wallingford, admitted to starting the applause.

“There is a well of emotion in this room because when children are at stake there is a huge well of emotion,” Bolat said. “I’d like to use a little of my time . . . to applaud all of the people who had the courage to come here today.”

Bolat got his applause and another warning from committee leadership. Audience participation can be common problem during emotionally charged hearings. But Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel, urged his colleagues to be patient with the upset parents. He said parents are frequently alienated by the process.

Carter said he remembers the first time he had a constituent bring the issue up to him.

“I thought she was off her rocker. She was sending me so much information that I couldn’t absorb it. I finally spoke to her, I sat down and got to know her,” he said. “I found out that this group of people may appear nuts to us. You know why? Because they’ve lost their kids. Because they’re victims of what they feel like is an unfair system.”

Many of the parents believe the family court system fosters prolonged custody battles for the benefit of the guardians and consultants affiliated with the court. Some reported GAL bills in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Colleen Buden told the committee that “parents are treated like criminals” in family court.

“Almost all the cases are the same. It’s the Connecticut family court playbook — the targeted parent is accused of having a mental illness. At that point the targeted parent hires professionals to fend of the allegations but once you clear one allegation along comes another. It’s endless. Most allegations come from the guardian ad litem,” she said.

However, some told lawmakers that the guardians have gotten a bad rap. Sharon Wicks Dornfeld, a Danbury attorney who has worked as a guardian ad litem for the last 25 years, said that “the vast majority” of GALs work hard to do their very best for the children they represent.

“I hope I am never the reason a case is delayed,” she said.

Hugh McQuaid photo
Sharon Wicks Dornfeld, a Danbury attorney who has worked as a guardian ad litem for the last 25 years (Hugh McQuaid photo)

Dornfeld said that in more than 90 percent of cases, the custody of children is worked out between parents in a more amicable agreement. She said GALs typically come into play in the small percentage of remaining “higher conflict” cases.

“Those higher conflict cases obviously require a higher level of services, more services require more time, and typically involve the assistance of a guardian ad litem or attorney for minor children in order to identify, promote, and protect the children through the process,” she said.

Dornfeld served on the legislative task force that made recommendations in January. Rep. Edwin Vargas, a Hartford Democrat who also was a member of the task force, suggested that lawmakers consider scrapping the GAL system entirely.

“We need to reform this guardian ad litem system. Either that or we do away with it completely,” he said. “At a minimum we need a code of conduct, we need supervision of the guardian ad litems if we’re going to keep them. We need evaluations. We need to make sure they don’t have absolute immunity.”

Vargas said the mechanisms in place for parents to contest the guardians are not working and some families were being billed at such high rates that parents are draining their savings trying to pay for the services.

“If there’s a bleeding of the finances, I don’t believe that’s in the best interest of the child, especially if the kid’s college fund is being depleted or if the family winds up losing the house,” he said.

The Judiciary Committee has until Wednesday to forward the bill to the Senate.