Investigation exposes little oversight of child advocates - CBS 5 - KPHO

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Investigation exposes little oversight of child advocates

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ATLANTA (CBS ATLANTA) -

A CBS Atlanta News investigation uncovered questionable oversight of court-appointed advocates sworn to protect children.

In Georgia, guardians ad litem are attorneys appointed by judges to determine the best interest of children during contested custody cases, but some parents, attorneys and child development experts question the guardians' expertise and objectivity. 

"The mental anguish for my children and me has been huge," said Gracie Ortiz Terrett. 

She had asked for a guardian ad litem after a judge limited her custody of her 8- and 10-year-old children to one day a week and every other weekend.  But Terret said guardians ad litem Raina Nadler and Jeanney Kutner were far from objective. 

In court documents, Terrett's attorney alleged the women improperly communicated with the judge, dictated changes in Terret's custody, yelled and shouted at and tried to influence Terret's witnesses.

Attorney Lisa West said Nadler and Kutner also refused to accept evidence from her for 90 days while the duo continued to work with Terret's husband and his attorney.

"Guardians ad litem simply cannot do that," said West. 

Alex Higdon, a former Atlanta Falcon, has sued the guardian in his case.

Higdon said Dawn Smith wasn't objective and recommended educational and custody changes after only speaking with his ex-wife and her attorneys.  

"She did not interview me," said Higdon.

Smith was recommended by lawyers for Higdon's ex-wife, with whom Higdon disagrees about how to treat their sons' autism.

Higdon said he feared Smith had the same opinions about autism treatment so he questioned her about that. An e-mail, provided by Higdon, appeared to show Smith claimed she had "no connection to or opinion on" an association that opposes the autism treatments Higdon's sons were receiving. Higdon later learned otherwise. 

"It turns out she was on the board of that institution in 2004 and 2005," said Higdon. "She had a personal agenda, and that agenda included how she felt about autism treatment."

"Many of them don't know what they're saying. It runs up the bill, there's no accountability, they're inherently biased," said Dr. Monty Weinstein, a psychologist and paid expert witness. 

Weinstein said guardians often recommend limiting one parent out of the picture, often to the detriment of the children.

Weinstein said guardians are highly paid but poorly trained in child development and potentially influenced by money. 

"The guardian ad litem will go to the law firm that in many cases gives them the most business," said Weinstein. "If the law firm is advocating, let's take the mother or father out of the picture, unfortunately many times they'll find the rationale to talk to the judge."
 
There isn't an agency that oversees or licenses guardians so it is difficult to know how big of a problem this is. The Georgia Bar said it doesn't track how many, if any, attorneys it has disciplined for inappropriate behavior as a guardian ad litem.  

Georgia's State Advocate Tonya Boga said, "I think we have the appropriate oversight."

Boga said she thinks guardians largely are honest and ethical, and the courts weed out the bad ones. A judge can remove the guardian ad litem if it's determined the guardian acted improperly.

But Weinstein said judges rarely remove guardians ad litem, who often appear before the same judges repeatedly.

"The guardians protect the judges, and judges protect the guardians ad litem," said Weinstein.

Higdon and Terrett both said the judge shrugged off their complaints, putting their children at risk.

Higdon said his sons haven't received treatment to address their underlying medical problems since Smith was appointed guardian in 2010.

Terrett said her children have suffered emotionally since her custodial time was slashed.

"[My son] said he hates his life. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that from both children because they don't see me."

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