Child advocacy in Connecticut family court could prove to be a valuable business, with attorneys billing more than $10,000 on some cases and a small circle of them managing dozens of appointments at a time.
Looking at bills from five unrelated cases involving different child advocates reveals it is possible to make $10,000 or more on one case in a single year in this line of work.
Sources provided the bills in confidence because they did not want to upset the attorneys appointed in their cases.
Judges appoint guardians ad litem in custody disputes involving a minor child. The parties involved cannot refuse the appointment of a GAL, whose role is to assess the child’s situation and represent his or her best interest.
Connecticut family court often pulls from the same pool when appointing a GAL to a case. In fact, about 90 percent of trained guardians ad litem in the state are not regularly appointed to custody cases.
Some GALs who don’t get family-court appointments may work in other parts of the court system.
Since a GAL does not act as an attorney, any person who has participated in a state-mandated training course may qualify. A GAL’s role is not the same as that of an attorney for the minor child, who must have a law degree and advocate for the wishes of the child.
Since some attorneys get a number of appointments as guardians ad litem, it is possible to imagine a scenario where one GAL bills for a six-figure amount in a single year.
According to a review of the Judicial Branch’s website done over the summer, six individual attorneys maintained appointments in at least two dozen cases.
Barry Armata, an attorney with Brown, Paidiris & Scott in Hartford and a GAL, said he doubts any attorneys are earning a six-figure income as a GAL.
“If anything, they’re losing money,” he said, explaining that he would be better off financially if he refused to be a GAL and focused on divorce cases.
Armata said about half of billed costs can go to pay practice expenses, so only about half of the billed amount is going to the attorney as income. He also said many GAL bills go unpaid.
He said he continues to serve as a GAL “because you meet these incredible kids and that’s what’s important.”
The lowest bill reviewed was for a little more than $10,000 over three years. With each parent paying an equal amount, the GAL billed more than $20,000 for the case.
Typically the parents share responsibility for GAL bills according to a ratio determined by the court based on relative financial resources.
Another case lasting about 18 months resulted in combined bills exceeding $50,000.
Some critics claim GALs assess how much an individual can afford and increase their charges accordingly.
Armata said bills of $10,000 or more probably represent high-conflict cases requiring a lot of court time, calling them “the tip of the iceberg.”
“If people are being paid just compensation for what they do, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.
Armata said it is sometimes cheaper to pay a GAL if it means less time spent in court where there are three attorneys, one for each parent plus the GAL.
The per hour rate on the reviewed invoices ranged from $150 to $300.
Armata said he usually charges about $200 an hour with a retainer of $2,000 to $4,000. He said if he doesn’t bill for the whole value of the retainer, he returns the leftover money.
A majority of the billable hours on each invoice included reviewing emails, travel time to and from court and telephone calls with the parties’ attorneys. Duties such as visiting the minor children and interviewing individuals with regular contact with the children were rarely noted on the small sample of invoices reviewed.
The state generally pays a flat rate of $500 per case to GALs representing children who receive state assistance.
Armata said he would not accept the state rate. “If I’m going to do pro bono work, I’m going to do pro bono work,” he said.
Professor Carolyn Kaas, a Quinnipiac University law professor who helps train guardians ad litem, said that she acknowledges that the GAL system in Connecticut is “not perfect.”
“I am well aware that there are some very vocal people who are upset with the GAL system,” she said. “Any system can always be made better.”
A task force on child custody cases created by the General Assembly is in the process of reviewing how guardians ad litem and attorneys for a minor child are used. The task force’s recommendations are due in February. Its next meeting is 10 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 26 at the Legislative Office Building, Room 2B.
Armata said it’s easy to see how GALs make enemies. He said GALs often say things parents don’t agree with and the “parent is expected to pay for you to say it.”
Kaas said that some people “are very upset,” mostly because they lost a case and “are angry and hurt and scared and they like to blame somebody, so they blame the GAL.”
“It’s hard to separate the valid complaints from the invalid,” she said.
Armata said he imagines some parents think, “‘I’m forced to pay this person that I didn’t pick.’”
“I could see why you’d be bitter about that.”
Jordan Otero was a summer 2013 Yankee Institute journalism intern. She is a senior studying journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She lives in Southington. Zachary Janowski contributed to this article.