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In May 2017, Tatyana Ellis was embroiled in a custody battle with her ex-husband over their now 15-year-old daughter. He requested a guardian ad litem (GAL)—a court-appointed representative of the child’s interests—for which the judge, Robert Leonard, assigned Nedra Wick, a local lawyer. According to the judge’s order, the guardian ad litem was to interview both parties and produce a report for the court. But, according to Ellis, Wick never interviewed her, instead demonstrating a consistent bias in favor of her ex-husband.

“Wick showed immediate hostility towards me,” said Ellis. “She did not interview a single person other than my ex-husband and only interviewed my daughter after I brought it to the attention of Judge Leonard in a court proceeding well over a year after Nedra had been appointed to allegedly represent my child’s best interest.” (Wick declined to be interviewed for this article, and Judge Leonard failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.)

According to a motion filed by Ellis, she tried to have Wick removed for months, but Leonard refused unless Wick was paid for her services in full. Because guardians ad litem in much of Georgia are paid by the parties, rather than the court, Ellis received invoices from Wick totaling $12,350.

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Ellis was trying to understand why Leonard was so resistant when she discovered that Wick had made at least $2,500 in contributions to Leonard’s re-election campaign, as documented in public campaign finance reports.

“Wick had made a payment to Judge Leonard’s campaign shortly before she was awarded guardian ad litem in my case,” says Ellis, citing a campaign finance report listing Wick’s $1,000 contribution to Leonard’s re-election campaign on April 24, 2017. “Then she was paid thousands of dollars in direct fees and awards from Judge Leonard, who protected her ongoing improper conduct.”

While not illegal, the potential for quid pro quo exchanges between judges and GALs in Georgia reveals a troubling lack of oversight in a system meant to help children. Without any apparent avenues for recourse, parents can become trapped, unable to lobby for custody of their children unless they meet the demands of judges and guardians ad litem alike.

See also: Bound by Statute: In Mississippi, Jim Crow era laws result in a high rate of Black kids charged as adults

GALs are expected to represent the best interests of their wards, particularly through investigating children’s circumstances and making reports and recommendations to the courts. In particular, GALs are intended to consider the child’s physical safety and welfare, mental and physical health of all the individuals involved, evidence of domestic violence, and other factors in determining issues such as custody, treatment plans, and visitation. According to the Uniform Rules of Georgia’s Superior Courts, judges are empowered to appoint guardians ad litem in the cases they hear. 

“Wick had made a payment to Judge Leonard’s campaign shortly before she was awarded guardian ad litem in my case,” Ellis said.

“GAL recommendations typically carry great weight with the court in dependency and Termination of Parental Rights cases,” says Jerry Bruce, the State Director of the Georgia Court Improvement Program for the Georgia Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children. Due to the patchwork nature of legal systems in the United States, the qualifications to become a guardian ad litem differ from one jurisdiction to the next.

“In terms of training, it depends on the state,” says Megan Martin, executive vice president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which researches and advocates policies benefiting children. “Sometimes they are lawyers, sometimes they are just volunteers.”

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In Georgia, qualifications for GALs include training in domestic relations law, court procedures, and investigatory methods, but do not necessarily require any standing with the State Bar of Georgia. Judges may remove GALs from cases “for good cause shown” by either party, and the court is also empowered to determine the amount of fees awarded to them. In practice, the policies around rates differ from county to county.

“In Fulton and DeKalb counties, there are offices of child attorneys, and when these attorneys are appointed as an attorney guardian ad litem for a child, their pay is set by the county salary scheme,” says Bruce. “In all the other 157 counties, the court sets the rate in consultation with the county commission. This is usually an hourly rate, and a common rate is $45 or $50 per hour for out-of-court work, and $60 or $65 per hour for in-court work.”

When [Ellis] refused [to pay the GAL], Leonard allegedly found her in contempt of court, ordered her held in the courtroom until the payments were made, and threatened her with incarceration.

Cobb County, where Ellis’ case was being heard, has no standard rate schedule for GALs. Invoices provided by Ellis reveal that Wick was consistently charging $200 an hour. Wick’s hourly rate is also significantly higher than the average for lawyers in the area—about $66 an hour—according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to Ellis, when she discussed Wick’s removal from the case with Judge Leonard in June 2018, he was ostensibly open to the removal, although he insisted that she pay Wick in full. When she refused, Leonard allegedly found her in contempt of court, ordered her held in the courtroom until the payments were made, and threatened her with incarceration, which she avoided only by having her current husband make arrangements to pay.

Following the advice of an attorney she consulted to better understand her situation, Ellis looked into relevant campaign finances for Judge Leonard, who was up for reelection in Cobb County Superior Court in May 2018. She discovered that Wick had contributed at least twice to Judge Leonard’s campaign: in April of 2017—one month before Wick was appointed to Ellis’ caseand once again in April of 2018—two months before Ellis requested that Wick be removed. The contributions represent 1 to 26 percent of funds raised by the committee in those three-month reporting periods, respectively. (Wick has also contributed to the campaigns of four other Cobb County judges, although there are no allegations of impropriety.)

“There are no prohibitions on any participant in any court contributing to a judge’s campaign,” says Bruce.

Regardless of how this may appear, experts say GALs are free to contribute to the election campaigns of judges without violating any laws intended to prevent conflicts of interest.

“There are no prohibitions on any participant in any court contributing to a judge’s campaign,” says Bruce.

According to Martin, the same is likely true in other jurisdictions.

“To my knowledge there is no direct prohibition since the role [of GAL] can be voluntary,” she says. “There may be a rule somewhere that prohibits it, but I’ve not heard of one and, honestly, I would be kind of surprised.”

Unable to file any legal complaints related to campaign finance, Ellis instead looked into ethical prohibitions on financial relationships between judges and guardians ad litem. According to the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, which oversees the state’s child welfare system, complaints about GALs who are attorneys can be taken to the State Bar of Georgia. But when contacted for this article, State Bar representatives deferred to the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which governs state judges. The Commission’s director, Ben Easterlin, declined to be interviewed. 

Ellis is not alone in her struggle for GAL accountability in Georgia. Fulton County resident Ryan Bondell was assigned a GAL, Macey Millard, in a custody case against his ex-wife for their seven-year-old son in 2017. Bondell claims Millard demonstrated a consistent bias against him, and when he requested to A. Gregory Poole, the assigning judge, that she be removed from the case, the judge became enraged and threatened Bondell with an additional $10,000 payment to the GAL, as well as a curtailing Bondell’s rights vis-a-vis his son. (Poole’s office declined to comment on Bondell’s case as it is still open; Millard failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.)

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Similarly, Augusta-Richmond County resident Robbie Roberson had Judge Michael Annis Michael Annis, appoint a GAL to his child custody case in 2015. Roberson accuses the GAL, Janet Weinberger, of invoicing him $2,200 for tasks never completed, like visiting his daughter’s school, speaking with her teachers, and speaking with his family members. When Roberson refused to pay, Annis allegedly threatened him with jail time. (Weinberger declined to comment, stating GALs are not permitted to discuss their cases; Annis failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“Judges are properly resistant to remove GALs at the request of a party, who may simply disagree with the GAL, unless there is a failure to comply with duties and obligations,” [Bruce] said.

These allegations, however, must also be considered against the obligations of judges to protect the interests of children, which may be in conflict with parental interests. 

“Very generally speaking, because a child is not in the parents’ care or custody, and the best interest of the child may differ from their parents in the eyes of the state or legally, a judge may refuse to remove a GAL unless there is a legal finding that they should be removed,” explains Martin. “That doesn’t mean they would never remove a GAL without circumstances of a legal finding or a request from the GAL to be removed, but it does mean it wouldn’t necessarily be unusual to keep a GAL in place for a child even if the parent, under those circumstances, asks for them to be removed.”

 With respect to GALs in Georgia, Bruce puts it more sharply. 

“Judges by statute should only remove a GAL if there’s an actual conflict of interest or a willful failure to comply with the statutory duties of a GAL,” he says. “Judges are properly resistant to remove GALs at the request of a party, who may simply disagree with the GAL, unless there is a failure to comply with duties and obligations,” he said.

“Guardians ad litem are getting sweet deals and big fees if they’re close to the judges,” stresses Ellis. “If people complain, they lose custody of their children.”

But how parties can be protected against an improper relationship or conflict of interest between a judge and a GAL remains unanswered. For Roberson, it took nearly a year for him to win custody of his daughter, which involved pushing the GAL assigned to his case to withdraw by going to local media with his story. Bondell, on the other hand, has not been able to have the GAL removed from the custody case for his son, who remains with his allegedly abusive ex-wife.

For Ellis, the matter was only resolved by paying the GAL. In the end, she had to pay $10,275 in fees to Wick before the GAL voluntarily withdrew from the case in August 2018. Judge Leonard withdrew from the case in February 2019, handing it off to another judge. The case was eventually decided in favor of her ex-husband, but an appeal is pending.

“Guardians ad litem are getting sweet deals and big fees if they’re close to the judges,” stresses Ellis. “If people complain, they lose custody of their children.”

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Arvind Dilawar

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.