In child protection cases, upon entering a court room, the future of a child is often in the hands of adults representing them.
However, there is a shortage of adult volunteer advocates, according to an Idaho Office of Performance Evaluation report. OPE principal evaluator Amanda Bartlett and other OPE staff presented the report to the Idaho Joint Legislative Oversight Committee Feb. 5.
“It’s just a constant struggle to recruit and train enough volunteer advocates,” Bartlett said.
Rural communities also face unique challenges, she said, because “transportation and the amount of available services are different.”
Bartlett said this is important because with effective representation, children and youth “spend less time in the custody of the state, have fewer placement changes, receive more services and those kids are more likely to have a permanent home.”
Through the study, OPE identified three key factors for ensuring access to consistent and effective representation for children: Early appointment of a representative, effective training of those advocates and consistency in representation. Bartlett said though Idaho does well in the first two areas, the state struggles with consistency and stability, in part because of the lack of volunteers.
“These kids … have changes in their home environment, in their schools, in, sometimes, their case workers, and having a single person that you can build trust with to represent your interests is really key,” Bartlett said.
There are two types of advocates in child protection cases. A guardian ad litem is a trained volunteer whose job it is to investigate the case and represent the best interest of the child. A public defender is a lawyer who often understands the legal implications better than a guardian ad litem, but does not spend as much time with the child, Bartlett said. A child can be represented by both at once.
However, some children are not represented by anyone for part of or the entirety of their case. This is not solely due to a lack of advocates, but also appointing children to a volunteer advocate program rather than to a public defender, when the program “doesn’t have the adequate number of volunteers to serve the child,” said Bryon Welch, an OPE evaluator. Other times, he said, the case ends before either a guardian ad litem or public defender is appointed.
To ensure effective representation for all children, OPE recommended an oversight committee look into three undertakings.
First, recognizing all forms of representation, including Court Appointed Special Advocate program staff acting as guardians ad litem. Some programs already have program staff act as advocates when there are not enough volunteers, Bartlett said.
Second, requiring public defenders to receive training, which currently only guardians ad litem receive.
“Many of the attorneys that we are able to assign to our cases have time because they are early in their career,” Jamie Hansen, executive director of Family Advocates, testified to the committee after OPE’s presentation. “So I’d like to acknowledge that additional training for our attorneys would be very beneficial.”
The third recommendation is to identify an entity to help existing organizations provide stability and consistency.
The committee voted to pursue a follow-up report next year on implementation of the recommendations.
Nina Rydalch covers the 2018 Idaho Legislature for the University of Idaho McClure Center for Public Policy Research.