By Amy Lee
Capitol News Service
They call them the “suitcase children,” youngsters who are shuttled back and forth between their parents’ homes amid messy divorce and custody battles. Regardless of which parent finally emerges victorious in court, the child loses time with friends, involvement in school activities, and a sense of stability at home.
Two Chesterfield residents, with support from Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, have been fighting for a new law to protect these “suitcase children.” Roy Mastro and Stella Edwards drafted a bill that would amend the state code and hold guardians ad litem to greater accountability.
Attorneys who are appointed guardian ad litem in child custody cases are responsible for crafting a report on the child’s circumstances, including parent interviews and home and school visits. Sometimes, custody courts are manned by substitute judges – and when this happens, that report is the only information the court consults to decide a child’s fate.
HB 1957 would have required the guardian ad litem to complete a certification checklist and collect signatures of interviewed parties to be submitted alongside the report.
The bill is dead for this legislative session. The House Civil Law Subcommittee, which reviewed the bill, has decided to wait for a Supreme Court of Virginia work group study that will review the policies and procedures for a guardian ad litem.
“They keep bringing that up every year. Every year that we’ve brought this up, here comes that work study group,” said Mastro, who backed a similar bill that also failed to pass last year.
“I worked for Honeywell for 40 years, and my boss, when they had a study group or something, he said they spend too much time studying and not enough time with action. And that’s what you find, and Riley [Ingram] feels the same way.”
Mastro and Edwards don’t plan to stop fighting for children caught in parental court battles.
Edwards chairs the legislative committee of the National Parent Teacher Association. Besides being a PTA leader, she is a radio host on WVST-FM, where she speaks about civic engagement. Edwards says the evidence of trauma on “suitcase children” is becoming more and more evident.
“Folks see things, but they don’t say anything ‘til someone else brings it to light, and then they jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘Yes, I can attest that this is happening.’ Teachers are broken-hearted seeing it every day in their classrooms and not being able to really do anything,” Edwards said.
“In many cases, even when a guardian ad litem is supposed to talk to a teacher or a guidance counselor, they don’t do that.”
It’s a sore subject for many parents, Mastro says, but not an uncommon story. He’s seen friends spend upward of $200,000 to challenge custody rulings that have placed their child with an unfit parent. Such money and time could be saved and children would be safer, he says, if guardians ad litem did their jobs right.
For now, Mastro, Edwards, and fellow advocates are waiting for the Supreme Court of Virginia study, which is expected to be completed this May. Their priority is making sure a guardian ad litem certification checklist is included in the study. If it’s not, they’re ready to return to the General Assembly session next year with a fresh bill in hand.
“We’ll have to keep following this issue and putting it in the paper, and make sure people are aware of what’s happening,” Edwards said. “Otherwise, these are the kind of things that will very easily fall through the cracks. Whatever we can, we will continue to do.”