St. Paul mom Sarah Collins has been in family court since last summer, fighting for full custody of two young children after discovering that they had been exposed to porn while in their father's care. Because the case is rife with allegations of sexual and physical abuse, the court assigned a guardian ad litem to advocate for the kids.
The guardian, Susan Olson, is tasked with investigating the mire of accusations. She is expected to visit both families in their homes and interview the kids, their therapists, school counselors, as well as other relevant sources. She then writes reports to the judge with recommendations for how much time each parent should have with the children.
But Collins doesn’t trust that Olson — the eyes and ears of the judge — is as objective as her job requires her to be. Collins, who represents herself, claims that Olson relies too much on the father’s lawyer to write her reports, and that she never interviewed the school social worker who helped Collins report the porn exposure to Child Protection in the first place. She says that in her private conversations with Olson, the guardian dismissed the children’s input as having been coached.
Collins now wants to record those in-person conversations with Olson in order to provide the court with accurate and objective documentation of what occurs during their meetings. The trouble is, Collins says Olson has refused to meet with her or speak to her outside of the courthouse interview rooms, where recording is not allowed.
Olson says there’s nothing she can do about the recording ban in Hennepin County court. Collins should have recorded her home visits, months ago, if she was adamant about having everything on the record, she adds.
“Typically when cases are resolving, our contact with parents and children is actually pretty limited,” Olson says, explaining why she hasn’t met with Collins outside of court in recent months. “As a guardian, people recorded in my experience, and people have taken photos of me, and posted them. It’s not uncommon. Parents are free to do that in their homes.”
In response to Collins’ claim that Olson never interviewed her son’s school social worker about the porn allegations, Olson referenced her own January 12 report to the judge. In that report she wrote, “The social worker at the children’s school reports that the children are doing well in school and do not require her interventions.”
“I’m a sworn officer of the court. When I testify in court, when I write a report, I stand by it,” Olson says. “We get appointed to gather objective information from as many sources as we can gather. We ask each parent, 'Who do you think I should talk to? Who should I get releases for?' And then we do that.”
According to the child’s school, however, while Olson did ask the social worker how the kids were doing at school — and whether they needed special support — Olson never asked about the porn.
“The school social worker informed her that there have been no concerns presented in relation to their school performance,” according to an email the school sent Collins on January 14. “Ms. Olson did not request information regarding prior concerns mother had presented regarding [the boy’s] possible exposure to pornographic material.”
Collins says she begged Olson the whole time to speak to this social worker directly instead of “continually stating that I was over-anxious and coaching. Instead of finding out what really happened the day we found out about the porn exposure, Ms. Olson refused to speak to the witness and instead made up her own storyline about me and my lack of credibility.”
Carla Kjellberg, the attorney who represents Collins’ ex-husband, believes there’s much reason to question Collins’ credibility.
“Sarah Collins has some real significant issues, and Susan Olson is an amazing guardian ad litem,” Kjellberg says. “I’ve been on cases where she’s taken a position contrary to my client, on cases where she’s taken a position consistent with my client, and she always conducts herself in the most professional, appropriate manner. What you have here is someone who cannot see another reality.”
Guardians don’t just let people record their sessions, the lawyer adds. It’s simply not done.
As recourse for parents who distrust the guardians assigned to their cases, Kjellberg suggests following up via email about what was said during private meetings. “They should email, and keep copies of their emails. Make sure you say these are the issues that I had brought up to you.”
Collins says that’s not an option. Olson has already told her a number of times that she doesn’t “deal with substantive issues via email.”
“If the interviews aren't recorded, she can manipulate statements in order to have info in the report, or out of the report, based on her preferences and impressions,” Collins says. “I personally know that she lies, but with a recording I could prove that.”