Guardians Ad Chargem

Appointed by a judge to act in a child's best interest, some lawyers can also help themselves by billing a small fortune

For most people who help kids entangled in the legal system, the only reward is the warm glow that comes from having done a good deed. For a lucky few, however, the payback is more pecuniary. Downright lucrative in some cases.

How do you go from being a concerned citizen to being a concerned citizen who gets paid? By becoming a private guardian ad litem. But there are a few hurdles you'll have to clear first.

First you'll need a law degree, and membership in the Florida Bar helps to get in this club. Besides, there's really no better way to meet and schmooze with family court judges, which is the second thing you want to do. Make sure the judges know you like kids.

Then sit back and wait for a juicy divorce or custody case to pop up, preferably one involving at least one rich parent able to pony up big time and several kids. You might have to handle a couple smaller cases for 1000 bucks or less to prove your worth. But sooner or later, if you've done your networking, the judge might remember you fondly and put your name on an order appointing a guardian ad litem in a contentious case involving well-heeled parents. If you're extra lucky, the judge won't dictate how much you can charge or how many hours you can put into the case. Now you're in the money.

A guardian ad litem is a person appointed to act in a child's best interest in legal proceedings, usually a shield between warring parents. The guardians are also investigators. In custody cases, for example, the court needs to know which parent is best suited to have primary custody. Parents who don't want to lose their children are not the best sources of objective information, so it falls to the guardian ad litem to make a recommendation.

Every circuit court system in Florida has a publicly funded Guardian Ad Litem Program. Usually administered by a few overworked staffers, these programs recruit and train laypeople -- non-lawyers -- to be guardians ad litem, which is Latin for "guardians at law." These guardians are volunteers; they serve because they want to help kids and are to be commended for it. Putting oneself in the middle of a disintegrating family is, as one guardian put it, "like sticking your head in a meat grinder."

Volunteer guardians are assigned in cases where the parties cannot afford a private guardian. (Broward County is in desperate need of volunteer guardians, with about 1000 kids waiting for their services.)

But if a judge decides one party or the other can pay, then pay they must. That happens in a small percentage of cases and usually only in divorce or custody matters. Dependency cases, where abuse and neglect are the issue, tend to involve foster children and people who simply don't have much money. As one guardian ad litem put it, "Dependency is the redheaded stepchild of the court house."

A private guardian ad litem is almost always a lawyer (but isn't serving in that capacity, which would be a conflict of interest), and that's when the bills can start to mount.

Unless you regularly sit in on court proceedings, there is no way to determine which lawyers repeatedly get assigned as guardians ad litem. The county's Guardian Ad Litem Program keeps tabs only on volunteers, not private, paid guardians.

Court watcher Eleanor Mendlein has sat through a lot of divorce and custody cases in the last few years, and she sees patterns in who gets assigned. "The same people get appointed over and over again," says Mendlein. "It's money. If you have deep pockets, you get due process."

Through the court watchers, New Times found three instances in which paid guardians made big money -- as much as $40,000-plus for a single case -- advocating for children. Not surprisingly, such dollar figures raise questions of bias. If your ex is paying a guardian ad litem thousands of dollars, will the guardian be influenced by the one who foots the bill?

"The concern is real, but I don't know if it's justified," says Melinda Brown, a family-law attorney who also works as a private guardian ad litem. "I deal with a whole lot more issues than who pays me."

But the people who've been through the system in divorce or custody cases think differently. "These guardians don't care anything about kids," says Teresa Cummings, who battled with her ex-husband over custody of their two children. "Believe me, they don't."

After their divorce, Cummings' husband decided he wanted custody of their children. The judge appointed a private guardian ad litem, and Cummings' ex-husband paid the bills. "They got money from the person who has it, which in this case was my ex," she says.

She can't quite put her finger on it, but Cummings had the feeling the guardian ad litem was swayed by her ex-husband. "She would say things to me to aggravate me," Cummings says. She also says she had no idea the guardian was an attorney and didn't realize who was paying the bills until the case was almost over.

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