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Report: Children not always represented in Idaho protection cases

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 11, 2018, 9:24 p.m.

BOISE – Idaho has serious gaps in representation for children involved in protective services cases, according to a report by the Office of Performance Evaluation.

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee received the lengthy report at a hearing last Monday.

“Gaps exist in Idaho’s system of representation for children and youth in child protection cases,” the report found. “We found a portion of children and youth did not have any type of court-appointed representation.”

OPE evaluators looked in detail at 207 cases, a sample of the roughly 3,300 statewide child protection cases in 2017. In roughly a third of those cases, children involved in a child protective services case, which often results in the removal of a child from their parents’ home, didn’t receive the representation of either a guardian ad litem (a court-appointed advocate) or a public defender.

Idaho law requires all children to receive such representation, and OPE found that without it, children are less likely to find permanent placement or to have an effective voice in child protection cases.

“Having a single person you can build trust with to advocate for your interests is really key,” OPE evaluator Amanda Bartlett testified.

Shortages in state funding for child advocates and an insufficient number of private volunteers were cited as contributors to the problem. The state also has no entity charged with overseeing how often children go without representation, and OPE has recommended the creation of an oversight and reporting program.

Idaho’s guardian ad litem system differs from that in some states, where the ad litem is sometimes a court-appointed attorney. In Idaho, each judicial district has a designated private nonprofit entity which organizes and arranges training for volunteers who serve to represent the wishes and interests of children in child protection cases. Guardians ad litem often spend significant time with children to develop an understanding of their best interests and desires, and they advise courts and public defenders, in those cases where public defenders are appointed.

“They’re really able to invest in those children throughout the life of their case,” evaluator Bryon Welch testified.

The report quoted an unnamed Idaho judge, who said representation of children is most effective when children receive both a volunteer guardian ad litem and a court-appointed attorney. Public defenders have large caseloads which limits the amount of time they can spend on a case, but they have legal training which makes them effective in court. Guardians ad litem can spend lots of time gaining a detailed understanding of their clients

“In my opinion, this is the scenario that produces the best information to the court,” the judge told evaluators. “You have an attorney appointed for the child who can give the legal background and representation, as well as a (guardian ad litem) who is usually in a better situation to give the court a broader, truer picture of what is going on.”

Evaluators reported the current level of state funding isn’t sufficient to cover the program’s costs, so the nonprofits spend a significant amount of time doing fundraising. That trades off with the amount of time their relatively small staffs (the nonprofit that serves the 3rd Judicial District reported having four staff members and 661 cases) have to recruit volunteers to act as guardians ad litem. The 3rd Judicial District encompasses Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties. In most cases, there aren’t enough volunteers to carry the caseload, so program staff frequently volunteer to serve as guardians ad litem, further straining limited resources.

The problem was most acute in the 4th Judicial District centered in Ada County. There a requirement has been instituted that for the child advocate program to accept a case, the appointed guardian ad litem must be combined with an attorney.

In order to meet their caseload, Family Advocates, the nonprofit group which serves the 4th District, reported it will need to recruit 266 additional volunteers and 79 attorneys willing to work on a pro bono basis. The group also reported that its existing slate of pro bono attorneys provided $302,000 worth of free legal services in the 4th Judicial District last year. The group raised $230,000 privately while receiving only $108,000 from the state.

OPE evaluators recommended working to coordinate the services of guardians ad litem and attorneys to provide effective representation for children, expanding training for public defenders regarding child protection cases and identifying some entity which can monitor and coordinate the various actors in child protection cases.

The committee asked for a follow-up report next year on progress toward meeting those goals.