Christine Stuart photo
Sen. John Kissel (Christine Stuart photo)

The General Assembly passed a bill Friday that would change how Connecticut’s family court system operates when it comes to contested child custody cases.

The bill gets one step closer to reforming how guardian ad litems, who are appointed in custody cases to represent the minor children, operate in the family court system. It passed passed 35-0 in the Senate and 129-0 in the House and is headed to the governor’s desk.

“This in the minds of some people will be viewed as a minor step or a small step, but considering all of the parties that came together to gather around the table and hammer out these issues I believe it is a significant step forward,” Sen. Eric Coleman said. “I have confidence and optimism that it will serve to improve and alleviate some of the complaints that have been raised and brought to the Judiciary Committee.”

The bill brings transparency to the billing practices of guardian ad litems by requiring the court to call for one and it says if a parent is unable to pay the fee they would be prohibited from using a child’s college savings fund or ordering payment from credit card accounts. In contentious cases it also allows the parties to choose a guardian ad litem from a list of 15 presented by the court.

In addition, the bill gives the parents standing to file a motion to remove a guardian ad litem or attorney for the minor children. That was a provision that advocates for reform insisted upon, Coleman said.

The bill does not cap the amount a guardian ad litem would be able to charge.

Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said that when a public hearing on the issue starts at 10 a.m. and ends at midnight, legislators need to take notice.

Lawmakers heard about how family court in some areas of the state was “incestuous,” Kissel said. “There was self-dealing and bills were generated in the tens of thousands of dollars. And people lost their homes, their retirement accounts, college funds.”

“How at the end of the day can a system that does that to people be working in the best interest of children? It can not,” Kissel said.

CTNJ file photo
State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez (CTNJ file photo)

Kissel and others recognized Rep. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford for all her hard work on the issue. Gonzalez took up the cause of the parents who felt they had been financially damaged by their guardian ad litem. Gonzalez was able to use the nomination of Judge Leslie O’Lear to draw even more attention to the issue and it was that closer than usual vote in February that got interested parties to the table.

Gonzalez said she invested four years of her life in getting to understand the issues regarding the guardian ad litems and trying to bring changes to the family court system. She said she recognizes that at time she gets very emotional over the issue and thanked her Republican colleagues for all their help on moving the bill forward.

She said it’s not far that parents are being asked to pay outrageous fees without question. She said some of these parents lose their cases and their children and are left with nothing. She said some have ended up homeless or on government assistance. She said the sheer amount of similar complaints pointed to a problem that the judicial branch didn’t want to address.

“I am confident that the judicial branch gets it,” Kissel said. “. . .These matters have caught the attention of the legislative branch in a huge way.”

Kissel said this was a first good step, but it’s just a first step down the road of reforming the family court system.

Outgoing Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said during his last legislative session “this was the only bill I wanted to see passed.”

“I think this is positive steps in the right direction, but falls short of where we will be to reform a system that needs a lot of change,” McKinney said.

Rep. Ed Vargas, D-Hartford, said he hopes the bill will go a long way toward correcting the abuses in the system.

The bill requires the judicial branch to come up with a code of conduct for guardian ad litems, which will be completed shortly after the bill goes into effect.