When Vancouver resident Tina Toth phoned state Sen. Ann Rivers’ office over three years ago, she had hit the bureaucratic equivalent of a brick wall and didn’t know where to turn. Toth had just lost custody of her two boys through a stunning decision to place them with her physically abusive ex-husband. A family-court commissioner had taken that drastic step based on the reports of a court-appointed guardian ad litem.
“When Tina called me the first time, I tried to find some avenue to help her,” said Rivers, R-La Center. “As a legislator there is little I can do to assist folks who are engaged in the legal process. There is a clear separation of powers between the legislative and the judicial branch of government. As frustrating as that is, there are good reasons for those principles.”
While Rivers could not influence the court proceedings, she could write legislation aimed at shoring up the guardian ad litem program. The result, Senate Bill 5823, received a public hearing Tuesday before the Senate Law and Justice Committee. Toth and Taryn Elfving, another southwest Washington resident, who lost custody of her children based on a deficient guardian ad litem report, testified about the need for Rivers’ proposed reform.
“The erroneous and subjective report of the guardian ad litem is at the root of where the system failed Tina and her children. When I learned there had been an inappropriate relationship between the guardian ad litem and the ex-husband’s attorney I couldn’t believe that some law or ethics rule hadn’t been violated. With my legislation, the failure to disclose such prejudicial information will no longer be OK.”
“People who are dealing with families at their moment of crisis should be working in the best interest of the children, not their own interest. There are many guardian ad litems – especially those working through the Court Appointed Special Advocates program – who should be nominated for sainthood. I don’t want to see a few bad actors ruin their good name.”