Evaluation context and approach

In our 2017 report, Child Welfare System, we found that guardian ad litem programs have some common implementation challenges: (1) program staff struggle to recruit enough volunteer advocates to adequately represent all children, (2) volunteer advocates are not consistently familiar with the legal system and have differing levels of monitoring and report writing skills, and (3) limited resources restrict the amount of volunteer training and support offered by the programs.

After the release of Child Welfare System, we were asked to explore these challenges and answer the question, “Does the CASA program provide effective advocacy for the best interest of children in the child protection system in Idaho?”

After we began our evaluation work, we realized that an important stakeholder was missing from the discussion. Information was available about the number of volunteer advocates representing children and youth. However, no one was sure how many cases were being appointed to public defenders across the state.

 

We sought input from the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court and the seven nonprofit organizations that operate the guardian ad litem programs in Idaho to identify how children and youth are represented. As a theoretical framework, we relied on the recommendations of the Michigan Law School National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System (QIC-Child Rep). The center has spent the past nine years researching representation for children and youth in the United States. Its researchers have identified the core clinical and legal skills that are essential to effective advocacy.

Report message

How are children and youth represented?

Idaho’s Child Protective Act requires court-appointed representation for children and youth who are the subjects of child protection cases. The requirement is satisfied through the appointment of a guardian ad litem, a public defender, or a combination of both. Guardians ad litem represent the best interest of children or youth. Public defenders serve as counsel for children or youth and represent their expressed wishes. Statute prioritizes the appointment of a guardian ad litem for children and requires a public defender for youth.

Of the 3,323 children and youths in child protection cases, 81 percent were represented by a guardian ad litem program in fiscal year 2017. In Idaho, guardians ad litem are not attorneys. Statute and rule contemplate guardians ad litem to be volunteer advocates. In practice, guardian ad litem programs assign cases to volunteer advocates and program staff. Gaps exist in Idaho’s system of representation for children and youth in child protection cases. We found a portion of children and youth did not have any type of court-appointed representation. In a sample of 207 children and youths in fiscal year 2017, 32 percent were not served by either a guardian ad litem or a public defender.

 

How does the type of representation that children and youth receive affect how they are served?

The research of the National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in the Child Welfare System has indicated that perhaps more important than the profession or type of representation provided, six core skills are essential for effective representation for children and youth. We found volunteer advocates and program staff serving as guardians ad litem have strong aptitudes in several of these skills: the ability to enter into a child’s world, assess safety, and actively evaluate the needs of the child. Given their legal training and experience working within a complex government system, public defenders have an aptitude for developing a case theory and providing effective legal advocacy.

When working together, public defenders and guardians ad litem can provide strong, robust representation. They complement the strengths of each other and together become stronger in all six core skills.

Has Idaho designed a system for providing consistent, effective representation for children and youth?

We found three program conditions that contribute to consistent and effective representation: (1) early appointment of representation, (2) training, and (3) stability. Idaho is strongest in early appointment of representation. Child protection training is required for guardians ad litem but not for public defenders. The biggest system challenge for effective representation is consistency and stability. Guardian ad litem programs struggle to recruit and support enough volunteer advocates to serve all the children and youth in their district’s child protection cases. Program stability and consistency is also affected by the amount of energy put into sustainability efforts, such as fundraising and public awareness.

Providing effective representation for children and youth requires coordination among counties, nonprofit organizations, judges, and the Supreme Court. Because of this complex structure, stakeholders are not clear about who is responsible for ensuring consistent practice and fulfilling the state’s obligation that every child and youth has some form of representation.

 

Stakeholders will need to make a coordinated effort to strengthen policies and implementation efforts for child protection cases. The Legislature, the Supreme Court, the nonprofit guardian ad litem programs, and public defenders in 44 counties each have a role in either setting or implementing policy. Because no single entity coordinates and offers guidance at the state level, we recommend the Legislature facilitate a coordinated and collaborated effort to bring together all relevant stakeholders to help strengthen representation.

We reaffirm our recommendation from our 2017 report Child Welfare System to create an oversight entity that looks at child welfare from a system level and assesses our recommendations.

In whatever form the Legislature decides to convene stakeholders, we recommend the groups consider the following:

  • Recognize all types of representation: volunteer guardians ad litem, program staff serving as guardians ad litem, public defenders as legal counsel, and a combination of legal counsel and guardian ad litem
  • Expand support and require training for public defenders working child protection cases
  • Identify an entity that can provide stability and consistency for the organizations providing representation services for children and youth

Legislative interest

Idaho has a network of guardian ad litem programs that provide representation services to most children and youth in child protection cases. Seven nonprofit programs recruit, screen, train, support, and supervise volunteer guardians ad litem, sometimes known as court-appointed special advocates. The programs follow the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association model.

In our 2017 report, Child Welfare System, we found that guardian ad litem programs have some common implementation challenges: (1) program staff struggle to recruit enough volunteer advocates to adequately represent all children, (2) volunteer advocates are not consistently familiar with the legal system and have differing levels of investigation and report writing skills, and (3) limited resources restrict the amount of volunteer training and support offered by the programs.

After the release of Child Welfare System, we were asked to explore these challenges and answer the question, “Does the CASA program provide effective advocacy for the best interest of children in the child protection system in Idaho?” See appendix A for the evaluation request.

Download Full Report: CASA Report