After you receive the GAL report and read it, your first instinct might be to share the document with family, friends and perhaps professionals such as therapists or teachers. It is important to hold back on this urge because the GAL report is confidential.

Circuit Court Rule 2.15 states: “Written reports of the guardian ad litem shall be kept in an envelope marked confidential within the court file, and shall only be disclosed to parties or attorneys to the action.” The GAL Report is not part of the public court file that is accessible to any person with enough curiosity to travel to the courthouse to review the file. Thus, makes sure you obtain either agreement from any other party to the case or a court order allowing the GAL report to be disseminated.

When a parent desires to relocate, whether across the state or across the country, it can raise difficult issues for the children and the parenting schedule. This video highlights the standard for relocation set forth in NH RSA 461-A:12 and the issues encountered in petitioning for or defending against a request to relocate. 

//www.youtube.com/embed/G6IguSRP8bY?rel=0

Before your final trial, the court will conduct a pretrial hearing. Learn here what will happen at the hearing and what needs to be prepared and filed at the hearing. 

//www.youtube.com/embed/p02IIMpVfuk?rel=0

I have received many questions about the similarities and differences between a surrender of parental rights and a termination of parental rights. While the end result is often the same when the parental rights and responsibilities of a parent are permanently severed, there many differences to be aware of. 

Similarities

• Both are proceedings that can end in the permanent severing of all parental rights and responsibilities of a parent.

• Parents who are surrendering or may have their parental rights terminated are entitled to an attorney, and if they cannot afford one the court will appoint an attorney to represent them.

• Both proceedings are confidential.

Differences

• In a surrender of parental rights, all the parties agree to terminate the rights of a parent; a termination of parental rights can be either contested or uncontested. A TPR petition does not always result in a termination of one or both parents parental rights. 

• A parent in a surrender is entitled to counseling at the expense of the petitioning party about the parent’s decision to place the child up for adoption.

• The court is required to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the child in a termination proceeding; a surrender petition does not require the appointment of a guardian ad litem.

• A surrender of parental rights requires that there be a pending adoption, where a termination of parental rights does not. An adoption does not always follow a termination of parental rights case.  

• A termination proceeding requires that the court make a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that grounds exist to terminate the parental rights of a parent and that it is in the best interests of the child. A surrender does not require such findings, only the agreement of the parties that the surrender take place.

• TPR cases are heard in the Circuit Court- Family Division, and surrender cases are either in the Circuit Court – Family Division or the Circuit Court – Probate Division depending on the specific facts of the case.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion In Re Guardianship of Matthew L. on December 21, 2012. 

The Facts

Mary and Joan began a committed relationship in 2004. Two years later, they began to plan for a family. Mary became pregnant in 2006 through artificial insemination, and gave birth to Matthew in April 2007. In June 2007, Mary and Joan petitioned to establish a co-guardianship to secure a legal, familial relationship between Matthew and Joan.

Mary ended her relationship with Joan in March 2008, and petitioned to terminate the co-guardianship a few months later. The motion was denied in October 2009. Mary renewed her request to terminate the co-guardianship in June 2010, and the issue went to trial in December 2011. Following the first day of trial, the Supreme Court issued its opinion In Re Guardianship of Reena D. Reena D. held that a guardianship established by consent requires the guardian to bear the burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision is necessary to provide for the essential physical and safety needs of the minor and that terminating the guardianship will adversely affect the minor’s psychological well-being.

The trial resumed in March 2012, and the parties agreed that Reena D. applied. Joan asked for a continuance to prepare additional evidence and hire an expert since it was now her burden of proof. The trial court denied the motion, and following completion of the trial, ruled that Joan had failed to carry her burden that the continuation of the co-guardianship was necessary to provide for Matthew essential physical and safety needs. The court terminated the co-guardianship.

The Appeal

Joan appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the trial court erred by refusing to grant her motion to continue and that the trial court misinterpreted Reena D. to require her to prove both that the guardianship continued to be necessary to provide for Matthew’s essential physical and safety needs and that terminating the guardianship would adversely affect his psychological well-being.

The Holding

On the first question regarding the continuance, the Supreme Court held that it could not conclude that the trial court’s ruling was an unsustainable exercise of discretion. Where the trial court has broad discretion over its proceedings, and the record showed that the trial court had access to the GAL’s investigation and report which included information from Matthew’s therapist and the parent’s co-parenting counselor, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court could have reasonably concluded that neither a continuance nor a new trial was required.

On the issue interpreting Reena D., the Supreme Court held that the question had not been preserved before the trial court because the general rule requires a specific and contemporaneous objection before the trial court. The court noted that “this rule, which is based on common sense and judicial economy, recognizes that trial forums should have an opportunity to rule on issues and to correct errors before they are presented to the appellate court. Despite affirming the appeal, the opinion provides a lengthy discussion of the parties’ arguments because they raise public policy concerns that the legislature may wish to address. The resolution before the court is left to another day.

The thrust of Joan’s argument is that by requiring her to prove both parts of a conjunctive test, instead of either part, it creates a dissimilar standard between the test to obtain a guardianship over the objection of a parent and to continue a guardianship previously consented to. For example, to obtain a guardianship when a parent objects requires the petitioner to prove pursuant to RSA 463:8, III(B) that the guardianship is necessary to either provide for the physical and safety needs of the child or to avoid adverse effects to the child’s psychological well-being. Joan argues that the termination of the guardianship should also be granted only if neither of the situations is true. She argues that “having different standards for the creation and termination of guardianships would foster instability in children’s lives, thereby contravening the entire purpose of guardianships.”

Mary, on the other hand, argues that Joan is “comparing apples to oranges.” She says that it should be easier to terminate a guardianship obtained through consent then to win guardianship over the objection of a parent. Otherwise, it would be contrary to the public policy of encouraging a struggling parent to make a difficult choice and allow for a guardianship if it will be near impossible to terminate that guardianship over the objection of the guardian.

The Takeaway

This is an interesting case in that the major, important question before the court remains unanswered despite a lengthy discussion of the issue by the court. Prior to the holding in Reena D., the trial courts generally applied a standard requiring the parent to prove that neither the physical safety of the child required supplementation of care nor would the child’s psychological well-being be impacted by the termination of the guardianship. It is a significant change to then require it to be proved that both are still true. Where a parent may be able to care for the child’s physical and safety needs without the guardianship in place, it will more often be the case where there will be a significant adverse effect on the child taken away from his caregiver who he has formed an attachment. The amicus brief filed by the National Association of Social Workers aptly points out that “just as courts have recognized that children form attachment bonds with caregivers, and do so without regard to biological or legal relationships, so they have recognized that disrupting a child’s attachment bonds can severely harm him or her.” With the burden shifted by Reena D., the legislature should act to make the test for the termination of a previously consented to guardianship disjunctive.

One cannot help feeling bad for the little boy in this case who has lost the legal relationship to one of his parents at the urging of his other parent. The October 2009 trial court order found that “Mary and Joan referred to each other both as Matthew’s mother; encouraged Matthew to look to both of them as mothers; and held themselves out to others as Matthew’s mothers.” Furthermore, that “[b]oth Mary and Joan are excellent parents.  Both love Matthew tremendously and show their love for him. … [T]he GAL had no concerns with either Mary or Joan as a parent.  The GAL noted that each has different qualities for nurturing Matthew.”

This case is an important example, at the expense of the well-being of this little boy, that a non-biological parent, whether in a same-sex relationship or heterosexual relationship, must secure unbreakable parental rights to protect their relationship with their child. Guardianship, at least under the Reena D. standard, does not adequately secure those rights since the legal relationship and rights that come with a guardianship can be severed. Adoption is the only means that will provide permanent security to the child and the parent. 

Continuing the series of You Tube videos, this edition discusses a very important hearing in your case: the temporary hearing. Watch to find out why, and what you need to do to be prepared and help achieve a good result.

Here are the forms you need for a divorce temporary hearing with children:

Thanks to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment, you were great to work with on this series!

New Hampshire’s “best interests” statute lists out several factors that the court should use to determine best interests. Many of the factors are little wordy, and as a whole the statute misses some of the very basic issues that must be considered when creating a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interest.

When I had the chance to reread a wonderful guide from the Massachusetts Association of Family and Conciliation Courts titled Planning for Shared Parenting: A Guide for Parents Living Apart, I loved the way that the factors were presented so simply. If I had the opportunity to rewrite RSA 461-A:6, I would use the AFCC’s language:

  • The age, temperament and social adjustment of each child.
  • Any special needs of each child (medical, developmental, educational, emotional or social).
  • The quality of relationships between siblings and any other extended family members.
  • Each child’s daily schedule.
  • Caregiving responsibilities of each parent before the separation.
  • How you would like to share responsibilities both now and in the future.
  • Availability of each parent as a caregiver.
  • Potential flexibility of each parent’s work schedule.
  • Distance between each parent’s home, workplace and children’s schools.
  • The ability of parents to communicate and cooperate with each other.
  • The ability and willingness of each parent to learn basic caregiving skills such as feeding, changing and bathing a young child; preparing a child for daycare or school; taking responsibility for helping with homework; assessing and attending to each child’s special emotional and social needs.

Here are two good examples of why the basics can be so important in the determination of best interests:

1)      Both parents are good caregivers and share responsibilities for the children both before the separation and after. However, the parents live forty-five minutes from each other. Although each parent is able to adequately provide and care for the children, the distance that they live from each other prevents implementing a shared schedule during the school year. It usually is not feasible to have a parent making a forty-five minute commute with the children to school.

2)      Parents are both good parents and caregivers, each dedicated to the children and able to appropriately care for them. One parent works from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday, with flexibility to work from home if the children are sick or have the day off from school. The other parent works second shift, from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm with little flexibility to take time off from work or be available for the children during work hours. The children’s best interests require that they be with the parent who is available after school and in the evenings to prepare dinner, help with homework, and oversee baths and bedtime.

Neither of these scenarios endorses the parenting of one parent over the other or concludes that one parent is unfit; rather, it is a finding that one parent’s work schedule makes them more available or that the distance between the two homes is too much to allow for a shared schedule.

Of course, under RSA 461-A:6 courts have the ability to consider any other factor not listed that the court finds relevant, but I think that these factors from the AFCC provide a plainer picture of the considerations that a GAL might use to make recommendations, or the court might use in crafting a parenting plan

Blog posts have been sparse lately, and here’s why: Administrative Order Number 2011-03. I’ve posted several times about the impending demise of the GAL fund, and it is finally coming to fruition. Judge Kelly’s administrative order, issued on April 19, 2011, requires GALs in  all GAL fund  marital cases (this excludes abuse/neglect, TPR, guardianship and CHINs) to complete investigations, file final reports, final billing and withdrawals by June 1, 2011.

And let me tell you, that is a ridiculous amount of work to complete in just over a month. It feels like finals week in college or law school, only worse. Instead of finishing up five term papers, I have thirteen reports. It is extremely frustrating to be thrust involuntarily into such a situation because the court system cannot be properly funded by the legislature. 

In the end though, it is the children of indigent New Hampshire Families who will suffer the consequences. They will no longer have a voice in the courtroom, and judges will have to sift through pro se he said she said in trying to determine a child’s best interest. And that’s a shame for New Hampshire.

The Guardian ad Litem fund took a step closer to extinction when the House Finance Committee voted last night to ok HB1 and HB2 and send it to the House for a full vote. The House budget cuts $742 million in spending from the current two-year budget. Among those cuts is the Guardian ad Litem fund, through which GALs are paid on family cases where parents cannot afford to pay upfront for GAL services and so they pay through the fund.

HB2 makes the following changes regarding the GAL Fund:

65. Guardian ad Litem Fees. Amend RSA 461-A:16, IV to read as follows:

IV. The fees for services for the guardian ad litem and others utilized by the guardian and approved by the court shall be a charge against the parties in a proportional amount as the court may determine. [ Where the parties are indigent, compensation for guardians ad litem and others utilized by the guardian and approved by the court shall be based upon the applicable fee schedule established by the supreme court for indigent defense counsel. ]

66. Liability for Expenses. RSA 461-A:17 is repealed and reenacted to read as follows:

Amendment to HB 2-FN-A-LOCAL

461-A:17 Guardians ad Litem and Mediators; Liability for Expenses. The 1 judicial council shall have no responsibility for the payment of the costs of a mediator or guardian ad litem for any party under this chapter.

67. Reference Deleted. Amend RSA 21-I:7-b to read as follows:

21-I:7-b Unit of Cost Containment. There is established within the office of the commissioner of administrative services a unit of cost containment. The unit of cost containment shall be responsible for all functions and duties authorized under RSA 604-A, regarding payment, recoupment and monitoring of indigent defense funds. [It shall also be responsible for all functions authorized under RSA 461-A:18 relative to recouping guardian ad litem funds.] The commissioner is authorized to employ personnel as necessary to accomplish the duties and functions of the unit of cost containment.

69. Repayment of Mediator and Guardian Ad Litem Fees. Amend RSA 461-A:18, I to read as follows:

I. In any case where a mediator has been appointed pursuant to RSA 461-A:7 or a guardian ad litem has been appointed pursuant to RSA 461-A:16 and the responsible party’s proportional share of the expense is ordered to be paid by the judicial council from the special fund established pursuant to RSA [461-A:17] through the unit of cost containment, office of administrative services, the fees and expenses paid on the party’s behalf as the court may order consistent with the party’s ability to pay, such ability to be determined by the unit of cost containment.

73. Child Protection Act; Guardians ad Litem. Amend RSA 169-C:10, I to read as follows:

I. In cases brought pursuant to this chapter involving a neglected or abused child, the court shall appoint a [guardian ad litem or] Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) or other approved program guardian ad litem for the child. If a CASA or other approved program guardian ad litem is unavailable for appointment, the court may then appoint an attorney or other guardian ad litem as the guardian ad litem for the child. The court shall not appoint an attorney for any guardian ad litem appointed for the child [, but may appoint an attorney or any other qualified individual as the guardian ad litem for the child]. The CASA or other approved program guardian ad litem shall have the same authority and access to information as any other guardian ad litem. For purposes of this paragraph, “unavailable for appointment” means that there is no CASA or other approved program guardian ad litem available for appointment by the court following a finding of reasonable cause at the preliminary hearing held under RSA 169-C:15 so that the child’s interests may effectively be represented in preparation for and at an adjudicatory hearing.

 How will the elimination of the GAL fund affect the judicial branch and families?

• When the court has safety concerns about a child and cannot appoint a GAL using the fund, the court will turn to DCYF to investigate the concerns. This will increase the work required of DCYF and expend state resources.

• Trials and hearings will take longer and require more courts resources. Currently, GALs speak to witnesses, review records and report the information to the court in a clear, concise manner. Without a GAL, litigants will bring into court teachers, therapists, family and friends to give testimony. Litigants will submit volumes of emails, medical records, school transcripts and more for the court to sift through. This will increase the time required of the court to hear the case.

• Fewer cases will settle, necessitating more hearings and trials. Currently, once a GAL issues a report or recommendation, litigants are often able to enter into settlement discussions using the opinion of the GAL as a case evaluation. Without that process, litigants will settle less often and in turn take up court resources with more motions and hearings.

• Because trials will take longer and occur more often, the court system will suffer longer delays. Currently, the wait for a two day divorce trial in the Brentwood Family Division is over one year from the time that it is scheduled. Without the GAL fund, parties will have to wait even longer for a resolution to their case.

• Indigent litigants will be denied access to justice that litigants who can afford to pay up front for a GAL will have. The court system has never discriminated on the basis of income, and it should not start now.

There are alternatives to the elimination of the GAL fund. One alternative is the state doing a better job of collecting the funds that parents owe for GAL services. My understanding is that the fund requires about 1.8 million to run each year. The judicial branch collects $240,000 in filing fees for the GAL fund. In addition, the office of cost containment collects about $350,000 from parents who use services. This leaves a shortfall of roughly 1.2 million. This gap could be closed more effectively recouping the funds from litigants.
 

If the elimination of the GAL fund concerns you, contact your House representative and ask that the GAL fund be preserved or at the very least the effects of defunding it should be studied in committee before acting.