Cases alleging child abuse or neglect are heard in juvenile and family courts, and state law mandates that every child in these courtrooms has a voice and an advocate working for them.
These advocates are Guardian ad Litems, and the state has more than 400 of them advocating for the best interests of children, minor parents, and incompetent adults.
Tami Baker-Olson, Guardian ad Litem Board program administrator, briefed members of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on the program Thursday, explaining how it operates under normal circumstances and how it has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baker-Olson noted that a Guardian ad Litem is not a neutral player in the court system: “A Guardian ad Litem is an independent voice speaking solely on behalf of the child in a system of competing interests.”
The state employs 227 Guardian ad Litems, supplemented by 183 volunteers, who manage an average caseload of between 30 and 35 clients at any given time, Baker-Olson said. In 2020 they took part in more than 33,000 court proceedings and advocated for more than 16,500 children.
Response to COVID-19 pandemic
During her presentation, Baker-Olson noted that the pandemic has lightened caseloads somewhat due to a slowdown in court cases, and the program is prepared to quickly get more Guardian ad Litems onboard if there is a significant uptick in cases when the pandemic eases.
The program suspended all in-person visits in mid-March last year, Baker-Olson said, which were slowly phased back in in late May when staff received personal protection equipment and online training.
Currently, virtual visits are the norm for children determined to be at low risk of experiencing further abuse or neglect, Baker-Olson said. In-person visits using proper safety protocols are allowed for children deemed to be at medium or high risk.
Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove) said in-person consultations are crucial to accurately assess the situation a vulnerable child faces, and is “very concerned” the program has not completely returned to in-person visits.
“We have found ways to safely go to the dentist, and go to doctors, and have other kinds of appointments in all other walks of life,” Robbins said.
“We do have visits occurring where it is safe and it makes sense,” said Baker-Olson, adding that Guardian ad Litems also very much want to return to in-person consultations and assessments.
“We need to pay attention to not only the guardians, but the families that we work with and their comfort level as well.”