A Guardian ad Litem plays a key role for a child during turbulent family times.
However, more than 500 children eligible for such help are not receiving assistance because of budgetary issues, program officials say.
They told the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee Tuesday that its supplemental budget request would help lower the gap. No action was taken.
A Guardian ad Litem is an advocate for a child whose welfare is a matter of concern for the court.
According to its board’s website, guardians “conduct interviews and observe the children and significant people in their lives. They review social service, medical, school, psychological and criminal records and reports. They attend meetings with the other professionals involved with the children and their families. They outline options and make written and oral recommendations in court regarding the short and long-term best interests of the children. They monitor court-ordered plans to ensure the children's best interests are being met.”
There are nearly 200 full-time equivalent guardians in the state and 288 volunteers.
Crysta Parkin, chair of the Guardian ad Litem board, said there has been a 55 percent statewide increase in child protection cases since Fiscal Year 2013. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of staff went up 13 percent, or 22 full-time equivalent positions.
“Managers and coordinators who are charged with supervising and training are carrying cases,” she said. “Caseload sizes are high, resulting in Guardians ad Litem being overworked and highly stressed. They are at times having to make decisions between visiting children or writing reports, and often have as many as 60 children assigned to them at a time.”
That lack of resources has resulted in guardians not being assigned to all mandatory cases in which abuse and neglect have occurred. Between Fiscal Years 2015 and 2017, there has been a 38 percent increase in guardians assigned to juvenile court cases, but a 25 percent drop in family court cases.
“We don’t want to have to prioritize cases,” said Board Administrator Kristen Trebil.
To help, the board is seeking $4 million for Fiscal Year 2019; the governor’s supplemental budget seeks nearly $3.67 million. An additional $4 million is sought in 2020 and 2021.
Trebil said the current biennium’s request would provide 45.5 new positions — including 12 to handle unassigned child protection cases, 11 to lower caseload sizes to 30 per full-time equivalent position, and 9.5 to handle unassigned mandatory family court cases.
“When cases are high it contributes to late reports and it can impact the quality of work provided because Guardian ad Litems cannot appropriately work case levels that high,” Trebil said. She added that 42 guardians now exceed the 30-caseload target.
Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) said the Legislature has an obligation to properly fund the program to ensure proper caseload levels. She said former Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center), who chaired the committee last year, refused to give increases in the last budget cycle.
“A lot of this is on us, and not on you,” she told Trebil. “… If we don’t provide the funding that they need, it’s shame on us because they can’t do their job if we don’t give them the money.”
The urgency was cemented in a March 2018 report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor that cited numerous problems with the program, including lack of board oversight and few standards have been established to provide high-quality service.
“Protecting the interest of the child is the reason the state has established this Guardian Ad Litem program,” said Deputy Auditor Judy Randall.
Trebil said steps have been taken and resources reallocated, but other changes will require additional resources.
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