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.
Perhaps Cummings' fears were overstated, because she ultimately prevailed in the case and kept primary custody of her children. The guardian's bill was about $5000.
That's small change compared to a $27,000 bill for guardian ad litem work in the case of Ulbrich v. Ulbrich.
John Ulbrich and Christina Coolidge Ulbrich were already divorced when guardian ad litem Jeffrey Bryer came into their lives. At issue was visitation for Christina's daughter, Nichole. Though he is neither Nichole's biological nor adoptive father, John wanted visitation rights with the child. Christina didn't feel her ex was entitled but gave in to avoid a costly legal battle. The case was settled out of court but not before the guardian ad litem wrote a 55,000-word journal on every aspect of the Ulbrich's lives and charged John Ulbrich $75 for each of the 365 hours he spent doing it.
"I think he is a frustrated writer," says John Ulbrich.
And not a very good guardian ad litem to boot, he adds. "It was just an absolute horror, a nightmare. [Bryer] had no ability to gain confidence with my daughter."
Bryer recommended that John Ulbrich be granted visitation rights and devised a somewhat complicated schedule to that effect. Though he was the one who requested that a guardian ad litem be appointed in the first place, Ulbrich refused to pay what he believed to be a wildly inflated bill. Not that he couldn't have paid if he wanted -- Ulbrich owns a Jaguar dealership on Sunrise Boulevard. Bryer, who did not answer repeated phone calls for this story, settled for $16,500.
And then there's the granddaddy of all guardian ad litem bills, a $40,000-plus whopper for services rendered in the divorce case of Gumberg v. Gumberg.
Again the pattern: Rich husband pays the bill, less financially endowed wife feels shafted by the system.
The Gumbergs' divorce case defines contentious -- the case file sprawls over 21 volumes. Lorraine Abruzzo Gumberg says her legal bill alone is more than $200,000. She estimates her ex-husband's bill at close to $800,000, a figure which could not be confirmed because Andrew Gumberg did not return phone calls from New Times.
At the heart of this mess is the custody of a four-year-old boy. The guardian ad litem recommended custody be awarded to the father, with the mother having visitation rights. Not surprisingly, that didn't sit well with Lorraine Gumberg. "I didn't stand a chance," she says. "I lost custody of my child."
Gumberg says the guardian ad litem criticized her for picayune things, like feeding her son from a bottle though he was 20 months old and letting him sleep in bed with her. The guardian also suggested that, should custody be awarded to the husband, the wife should live close by so the child's life would not be unduly interrupted. Gumberg scoffs at the notion, noting that her ex-husband, whose worth is put at some $32 million in court records, lives in a $2.5 million waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale. "The idea was that Jordan should not have to go from dad's beautiful house to mom's trailer park," she says. "That's bullshit."
Anne Alper, the guardian ad litem in the Gumberg case, was out of town and could not be reached for this story.
In the end Gumberg says her ex-husband got the best legal help money could buy. "I just don't think the system works right," she says. "I think the system sucks. He has money. I don't. That's the bottom line."
Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: [email protected]