While judges, social workers, attorneys and parents wrangle over who should have custody of a child, a specially appointed attorney and an advocate guard the interests of that youth.
Thanks in part to the Child Welfare Reform Act, which went into effect this summer, the Guardian Ad Litem program is stronger than ever. Legislators bolstered it with more attorneys, an infusion of money and a clearly defined purpose.But those attorneys still need citizen volunteers to help them manage cases.
In Utah, 21 attorneys have contracted with the state as guardian ad litems, most of them on a full-time basis. They deal with cases where children have been abused, neglected or are "dependent," meaning placement is an issue for reasons not involving abuse or neglect, like a parent's incarceration on an unrelated criminal charge or the serious illness of a single parent.
Most of their work is in the juvenile court system, but guardian ad litems are also appointed to help children in district court in custody disputes. They occasionally find themselves in criminal court to deal with allegations of abuse and neglect.
The average caseload for guardians is about 80, so volunteer advocates are crucial to assist the attorneys. More than 16,000 cases of abuse or neglect, involving about 3,000 children, were handled last year statewide, sometimes without separate representation for the child. The several hundred volunteers are not enough.
Called Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), the volunteers get to know the child and his background and circumstances. They maintain close contact, attend all shelter and administrative hearings and work closely with the attorney/guardian ad litem to make sure the child's interests do not get lost in the shuffle, according to Kristin Brewer, director of the Office of the Guardian Ad Litem.
Volunteers commit themselves to 18 months (the timeline set forth in the act to resolve the issue of a child's placement), 18 hours of training and one or two hours a week meeting with the child, following the case and attending hearings. Some of the contact can be done by telephone, said Salt Lake CASA coordinator Susan McNulty.
While Brewer would like to see separate representation for each child, most volunteers serve all the children in a family. That's not true, however, in cases where one child has perpetrated a crime like abuse against a sibling.
The CASA program was initiated by a judge in Seattle who believed that every child whose future was at issue deserved independent representation. The program is now a national one, although it varies slightly from state to state.
The reform act also increased the involvement of the attorney general's office, which represents Family Services and works closely with guardians, CASAs and judges, Brewer said.
Brewer is especially pleased with the time limit. "We're finally recognizing a child's sense of time," she said. "A year in the life of a child is a long time. Five years is forever."
The changes have all helped protect children, she said. But she cautioned the public not to think that means everything has been "fixed."
A disproportionate share of the child-welfare system's success depends on the initial work that is done when an allegation of abuse or neglect comes in.
"Intake is critical. Those people are the gatekeepers and they need to be the very best. Somebody needs to be authorized in an emergency to make that decision and the quality of those people is critical. Some are very good, but there are never enough excellent CPS (Child Protective Service) workers.
"It won't matter how much the system has changed if we never see the case," said Brewer. "I just don't want us to become complacent about the multidisciplinary approach fixing everything."
To find out more about the CASA program, call 578-3962.