Child custody cases get help in Travis County but in Williamson and most other counties you’re on your own
Part 1 in a Series
Posted March 15, 2016 1:22pm
In the State of Texas in 2013 there were 76,423 divorces involving 59,135 children, according to statistics provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services’ Center for Health Statistics. Some of those divorces resulted in amicable arrangements for child custody in which the parents rose above self-interest and focused on sharing their responsibility to shepherd happy and well-adjusted children into adulthood.
But there is all too much evidence of divorce cases in which the bitterness bestowed by bickering parents pervades every aspect of their children’s lives. In those cases, money may be the least of concerns in the combat for control and custody of children borne out of love and delivered into the war zone of a contentious divorce.
Divorces are emotionally exhausting and can leave parting parents drained, both emotionally and financially. When minor children are involved, the romance may have ended but the parents remain connected to jointly look after their custody, housing, education, medical care, and emotional well-being until they come of age.
Even long after the divorce is final, the ties that bind divorced parents together over issues of child custody may fray and grow contentious.
Divorced parents may continue to struggle for control over critical issues: Where will the children live? Where they will be educated? In which extracurricular activities will they participate? What kind of medical care will they will receive? Not the least of these stressful issues is which parent will pay for these and the myriad other expenses involved in raising children?
When one parent’s behavior appears to threaten or endanger the children—or for whatever reason becomes unacceptable to the other parent—the deadlocked former mates may jump to hire lawyers and seek to air their grievances in a court of law.
The children’s welfare—the thing that should be uppermost in the minds of deadlocked parents—may get shoved aside, become a casualty of family warfare. At that point the overriding goal of looking out for the children becomes a concern for the court. The judge may choose to appoint someone to look after the best interests of the children.
Whoever’s appointed has to come in and objectively examine the circumstances and then make an informed recommendation to the court about what’s best for the children. That person is usually an attorney ad litem or a guardian ad litem. Translated from the original Latin, ad litem means “for the lawsuit.”
The key difference between the two types of ad litems is explained in an informative guide for parents published online, along with a lot of other information important to divorcing couples, by the Travis County Domestic Relations Office:
The Guardian Ad Litem, who is often a licensed professional counselor, focuses on the child’s best interests in making recommendations to the court, even if that is not what the child says he or she wants (emphasis added).
An Attorney Ad Litem is appointed by the court to represent the child’s best interests and wishes. However, if the child’s best interests are different from the child’s wishes, the Attorney Ad Litem will represent the child’s wishes (emphasis added).
Typically a given custody case would involve one or the other of these kinds of ad litems and not both.
Once appointed, the ad litem will investigate, complete written reports for the court, and testify in court hearings.
Travis County offers sliding-scale guardians
In Travis County there were 2,752 divorces in 2013 affecting 1,977 children. To help these families going through divorce and custody issues, a guardian ad litem is appointed automatically in cases involving termination of parental rights, according to the Domestic Relations Office’s Family Court website.
“In other cases, such as contested custody cases, the judge may appoint a guardian ad litem or either party may request an appointment,” the website states.
A key factor—especially for parents with modest incomes—is what will it cost to involve these outside professionals to look after the interests and wishes of the children?
In Travis County, parents can obtain the services of a guardian ad litem through the Domestic Relations Office for a fee that’s based on a sliding scale, according to the parents’ income. The fee ranges from $300 to $2,700 per parent.
Attorney Scot Doyal, director of the Travis County Domestic Relations Office, said in an e-mail, “Our Guardians are salaried county employees. None of the fees go to them. Any fee the court might order is based on the judge’s assessment of resources a party has to determine their ability to pay.
“Should a parent later find themselves in a bind to pay, we accept payment plans as well as the ability to waive the fee in certain cases where payment might be impossible. The fees are collected simply to try to reimburse the county for services provided but our program is not dependent on them for revenue,” he said.
The Domestic Relations Office, however, does not have lawyers on staff who could be appointed as attorneys ad litem, Doyal said.
Instead of obtaining a guardian ad litem through the Domestic Relations Office, parents, through their attorneys, may instead opt to ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem who is in private practice, with the understanding that the fees will likely be higher.
Williamson County—where there were 938 divorces in 2013 affecting 985 children—does not have a Domestic Relations Office and both guardian ad litem and attorney ad litem services must be provided by private practitioners.
Williamson County is not unique in that respect. Only eight of the state’s 254 counties have Domestic Relations Offices, according to the website of the Texas Association of Domestic Relations Offices (TADRO) and confirmed by attorney Doyal, who is a past president of TADRO.
Three of these eight counties have populations of less than 1 million. Two of them (Taylor County, population 134,000, and Lubbock County, population 289,000) have populations considerably smaller than Williamson County’s 471,000.
TADRO itself was created in 1985 and Travis County was a charter member, Doyal said.
Doyal said the Travis County Juvenile Board established the county’s Domestic Relations Office in 1956 as part of the Juvenile Probation Department. The Family Court Section of the Domestic Relations Office was established in 1982 to provide guardian ad litem services to include social studies and counseling.
Today the Travis County Domestic Relations Office has a staff of 51 full-time and one part-time employees and an annual budget of more than $3.6 million, he said.
Attorneys for poor parents
The Austin office of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) provides services in eight Central Texas Counties: Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Llano, Mason, Travis, and Williamson.
TRLA’s Austin Branch Manager, D’Ann Johnson, said in an e-mail that her office can only assist parents with child custody or modifications when domestic violence is involved.
“We are severely constrained by federal poverty guidelines and recognize there are many people who cannot afford litigation costs,” Johnson said.
The 2016 Poverty Guidelines for the 48 contiguous states and District of Columbia were published in the Federal Register January 25. The guidelines are based on household income, which ranges from $11,880 for a one-person household, to $16,020 for a two-person household, and go up to $40,890 for a household of eight people. If the household includes more than eight, an extra $4,160 is added for each additional person.
Attorney Danielle Gonzalez, TRLA’s team manager for domestic violence and family law, said the poverty guidelines for taking clients are mandated by restrictions on funding the TRLA receives from the State of Texas and the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide civil legal aid to low-income Americans.
Gonzalez said the TRLA has four staff attorneys who handle family law cases in its eight-county service area. “We have to triage,” she said. At present three of those four attorneys are engaged in jury trials and cannot take more cases.
“We just don’t have enough family law attorneys,” Gonzalez said. “We have to turn down cases weekly—good cases—because we don’t have enough staff.”
Another possible source of legal help is Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas (VLS). This nonprofit organization founded in 1981 helps low-income clients access the civil justice system by providing volunteer attorneys who donate free legal advice and representation, and by supporting and training those attorneys.
Family law cases are handled by local law firms on a monthly rotation, and each firm handles cases involving divorce and child custody,” said VLS Executive Director Steve Elliott.
“We are able to help in Travis County because volunteers who practice in Travis County are willing to take cases,” Elliott said.
In Williamson County, however, Elliott said, “The system is not all that friendly to low-income individuals. We have tried for years to get resources for more services in Williamson County.”
Paying for ad litem services
In lawsuits involving the parent-child relationship, Texas Family Code Section 107.023 states that attorneys ad litem and guardians ad litem “are entitled to reasonable fees and expenses in an amount set by the court and ordered to be paid by one or more parties of the suit.”
That section states the court shall determine the fees and expenses by reference to the customary fees for similar services in the county of jurisdiction. A deposit is to be made with the court when the appointment is made. Before the final hearing, the court may order an additional amount be paid.
Ad litems are in control
Guardians ad litem are often licensed professional counselors (LPC) who are required to follow the applicable state laws and the rules established by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Licensed Professional Counselors.
The agency also publishes on its website a Fact Sheet for Consumers and an LPC Brochure, as well as information about the Complaint Process that’s available to consumers who believe a licensed professional counselor has acted improperly. The agency’s website permits searching for information about licensees, by type of license, by city, or by county.
For parents living in Travis County, the Domestic Relations Office requires parents who use its guardian ad litem services to attend an orientation for Family Court Services. The orientation includes watching a half-hour video titled Don’t Forget the Children that presents the advice of judges, attorneys, counselors, parents, and children about why it’s usually advisable to keep child-custody fights out of the courts to prevent the trauma that children endure while the parents battle for the upper hand.
The orientation includes helpful literature and provides answers to questions about the programs and how to work with an appointed guardian ad litem. Information is also provided about the Cooperative Parenting Forums offered by the Domestic Relations Office, consisting of six 90-minute sessions that are offered only on weekday afternoons.
To prepare for interacting with their children’s guardian ad litem, parents must complete a detailed 12-page questionnaire that covers every aspect of the parent and former mate’s background, custody schedule, living arrangements, family members living in the household, and any other individuals who play an important part in the children’s lives.
Parents must also sign a Statement of Understanding that explains the guardian ad litem’s role as an officer of the court and the authority that person has to delve deeply into their parenting and how the child is affected.
Duties of the parents and guardian ad litem
The Domestic Relation Office’s Family Court website outlines the legal process that prescribes the duties of the guardian ad litem.
The guardian ad litem will conduct an investigation that includes observing the children with each parent and how they interact with other family members who live in the home. Parents must cooperate fully and may be required to furnish, or allow access to, records concerning schools, medical health, and, if applicable, records for treatment of alcohol and drug dependency, mental health, Department of Family and Protective Services, police, and any other records needed to evaluate the children’s welfare and the mother and father’s parenting.
Parents must sign releases if the guardian ad litem wants to talk to therapists or counselors. If the children are at least four years old the guardian ad litem must interview them.
Parents will continue to be responsible for meeting the daily needs of the children.
If problems are found in the investigation or a court hearing is needed, the guardian ad litem will advise the parents’ attorneys. The guardian ad litem may advise the court during the investigation. The guardian’s work is not finished until final recommendations are made to the court and the judge renders a decision. In some cases multiple court hearings may be required.
During the investigation, the guardian ad litem can exert significant control over the parents and may request drug testing, counseling, parent-education classes, or other activities to improve the mother and father’s ability to parent well.
If parents do not agree with the guardian ad litem’s recommendations, the parents’ attorneys may bring this to the judge’s attention in a hearing. The judge will then decide whether or not the recommendations will be court-ordered.
While these actions are being carried out the proceedings will drag on and there will be a continuing drain on the parents’ finances. In addition to the expenses incurred for the ad litem, there may also be fees for counseling, psychological examinations of the parent and children, and drug testing. Supervised visitation may be called for, in which case a parent may only see their children under the watchful eyes of a third party, for an additional fee.
When a parent cannot pay, the service provider may ask the court to intervene and order payment. A parent may be found in contempt of court for non-payment and even possibly be jailed.
The most important takeaway is for divorced parents with children to do their utmost to get along for the sake of their kids, to accommodate each other’s occasional foibles, and do their utmost to stay out of court.
Children’s Bill of Rights (3 pages)
Statement of Understanding for Parents Assigned a Guardian Ad Litem by the Travis County Domestic Relations Office (1 page)
Texas Cooperative Parenting Course for Divorced and Separating Parents (available in both English and Spanish)