SNOHOMISH COUNTY -- A Snohomish County superior court judge made dramatic rulings Friday on the county’s 30 year program intended to help children in highly charged CPS court cases.
Volunteer Guardian Ad Litems (VGALS) are court-appointed advocates assigned to cases when parents are on the brink of losing their children to foster care permanently. The role of the VGAL is to remain neutral and present to the court information that is in the child’s best interest.
But on Friday, Judge Anita Farris ruled the Snohomish County VGAL program is fraught with ‘misconduct’ that wasn’t minor, but "pervasive and egregious."
“The misconduct of the guardian ad items seriously jeopardized the finality and permanency for this child, directly contrary to the best interest of the child,” ruled Farris in a Snohomish County courtroom.
Her findings go beyond one case. She found a pattern of misdeeds.
“VGAL misconduct allowed to multiply and fester hurts, it does not help, the VGAL program,” said Farris.
Problems first came to light in 2015 when a defense attorney for parents trying to keep their children accused a VGAL of spying by surreptitiously obtaining access to a list-serve set up exclusively for members of the Washington Defenders Association, a non-profit that provides resources for defense attorneys. The list-serve is a group email site meant only for defense attorneys to share legal strategy and other confidential information.
Judge Farris ruled on this allegation in February. She found the VGAL did break rules by secretly getting onto the list-serve and that the VGAL “lied under oath”, submitted a declaration to the court that’s a “made up sham” and used the “county email system to commit the crime of theft.”
Legal motions filed after this allegation turned up more accusations of misconduct and on Friday Farris ruled on them. She found some VGALs demonstrated a bias against the biological parents and instead, worked to ensure the children stayed with foster parents.
“She (a VGAL) treated the parents as non-entities even though it was months before trial, and the parents were active visiting and doing some services,” said Farris. “GAL Walker had made up her mind and written the parents off as hopeless more than seven months before (the) trial (to potentially terminate the parent’s rights).”
Farris said this bias motivated some VGALS to cheat and break state laws that govern the actions and responsibilities of guardian ad litems.
Among the examples cited was a case where the VGAL secretly gave confidential, negative information about the biological parents to the foster parents and used a personal email account to do so.
”The Snohomish county VGAL program engaged in abusive litigation tactics, including concealing evidence, supplying false information and retaliating repeatedly,” said Farris.
Farris went on to opine that supervisors looked the other way when confronted with facts about misconduct.
“Even though more and more wrongdoing continued to occur, supervisor Walker did nothing,” said Farris.
The parent defense attorney who first discovered the breach into the list-serve said Farris’ rulings Friday show major changes need to take place in this program.
“It’s incredible, we now have an agency in a program that has been found to have destroyed evidence, covered up findings of misconduct and that undermines our whole system that undermines what we do and our ability to protect our clients and their families,” said Adam Ballout. “The (VGALs) biases take the front seat. After they were called out then it became retaliation and cover-ups. The children’s best interest always took a backseat. First to bias, and then to revenge once their bias was exposed.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Alicia LeVezu, a staff attorney at the University Of Washington School Of Law who specializes in children and youth advocacy law. “I think this says this program has been acting unethically and egregiously unethically for a few years now and it just shows that children deserve better in our state.”
The VGAL program reports to the Snohomish County Court Administrator who was not available for comment Friday. The administrator reports to the Snohomish County Superior Court Judges. Assistant Presiding Judge Michael Downes said the judges have yet to read the ruling by Farris but that they will make a decision on what to do about the troubled program afterward.
“We take this most seriously,” said Judge Downes.
At the beginning of the hearing Judge Farris made a point of underscoring the importance of the VGAL program to the citizens of Snohomish County.
“VGAL programs serve an important function and provide a valuable service that otherwise may not be available to these children. VGALS undoubtedly volunteer with the best of intentions to help children. However the illusion made at (the trial) that this court should wink and ignore serious misconduct by individual VGALS because VGAL programs provide a wonderful service, is a specious argument,” said Farris.