Parental rights advocates are using billboards on I-91 and I-84 to call attention to family court reform legislation leading up to Friday’s confirmation hearing of Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers.
Rogers has been chief justice for eight years. She was appointed to the position by former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and was renominated March 31 by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
As chief justice, Rogers has become the target of parents’ complaints. Last year, lawmakers used the judicial nomination process to draw attention to family court reforms, which eventually became law.
“We view the challenge to the Honorable Chase Rogers to be an important moment to define the rights of parents,” Marisa Ringel, a member of the Coalition for Connecticut Family Court Reform, said.
The new legislation the coalition supports seeks to decrease what they see as government interference in family courts regarding the fitness of parents. Ringel said that “profit seeking lawyers and Guardian Ad Litems (GALs)” have become increasingly empowered as judicial discretion has expanded under Justice Rogers.
A “guardian ad litem” is a person the court appoints to represent the best interests of a child in a divorce or parental-rights case.
The legislation that was passed last year tried to bring transparency to the billing practices of guardian ad litems by requiring the court to appoint one when necessary and says that if a parent is unable to pay the fee the court is prohibited from using a child’s college savings fund or the family’s credit card accounts. In contentious cases the current law also allows the parties to choose a guardian ad litem from a list of 15 presented by the court.
In addition, the current law gives parents standing to file a motion to remove a guardian ad litem or attorney for the minor children, but it does not cap the amount a guardian ad litem would be able to charge.
”Too many of Connecticut’s divorcing families are being exploited by profit-maximizers circling Connecticut’s divorce industry looking for highly lucrative incomes at the expense of families,” Ringel added Monday.
The new legislation, HB 5505, would limit supervised visitation orders, remove immunity for guardian ad litems, prevent guardian ad litems to provide hearsay testimony in court, and allow parents to choose mental health providers for their children.
The two digital billboards on I-91, near the Colt building in Hartford and I-84 in Waterbury, will run for seven days. The billboards say “Chase…Chase…Vote No on April 10. Support HB5505.”
The Coalition for Connecticut Family Court Reform spent $4,500 on the billboards, Ringel said. The purchase was funded by a group of anonymous donors who have been seeking family court reforms.
“We wanted to ensure that legislators in Hartford hear our message on behalf of the families in crisis going through Connecticut’s family court system,” Ringel said Monday.
The Judicial Branch testified against the legislation on March 11 during a public hearing that lasted for more than 16 hours.
Elizabeth Bozzuto, the Chief Administrative Judge for Family Matters, said in a written testimony to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee that she views the bill as “inhibiting the Court’s ability to render decisions that are as well-informed and well-intentioned as they can possibly be.”
“We, the family judges, are called upon to make very difficult decisions in the very worst of circumstances. Respectfully, by this legislation, the family courts are being asked to make these very difficult decisions with one hand tied behind our backs,” Bozzuto testified on March 11.
According to Bozzuto’s testimony, limiting the discretion of the court regarding supervised visitations to only cases where there is evidence of abuse could potentially put a child at risk by leaving parental access as is, or terminate access altogether and harm the parent-child relationship.
“If we don’t have proof certified by DCF that is about neglect or abuse, why do I have to pay a person to sit next to me for me to spend time with my son?” Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, said during the public hearing.
Bozzuto said that a major concern for the Judicial Branch is that it could prohibit the court from working in the best interest of the child.
“When you destroy a family like that, you destroy kids in the middle,” Gonzalez said. “They are the ones that are paying for it. 5505 is in the best interest of the child, but not in the best interest of the pockets out there that are making dollars and dollars on behalf of these people.”