Ashley and her husband became foster parents about two years ago.
The Nampa couple have fostered seven children. They only have two foster kids now — but that’s been a 19-month process that “started out rocky,” she said.
When the children were assigned a guardian ad litem by a judge in Canyon County, that changed.
“Our guardian ad litem actually goes to court … reaches out to me and encourages emails and pictures and updates and just wants to be in the loop with what’s going on,” said Ashley, who requested her last name not be published due to privacy and safety concerns. “I feel like … in the courtroom, she is the only one who really only has eyes for the kids.”
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But in Southwest Idaho, many children are being sent through the foster- and child-protection process without a dedicated advocate. The programs that train and coordinate those advocates need more volunteers, and they need more funding.
‘A common sense perspective’
These volunteers help some of Idaho’s most vulnerable kids — the abused and neglected.
“We are basically the judge’s checks and balances, eyes and ears,” said Nikki Kiesel, who runs the 3rd District guardian ad litem program. You’ll also hear it referred to as court appointed special advocates, or CASA.
Not bound by administrative rules or state-agency procedures, the guardians ad litem (GALs) are there to campaign for a child’s best interest.
“We bring kind of a common sense perspective to a child’s case,” she said.
The law has “a very low threshold of being able to return the kid to their home,” added Shelly Schwers, a volunteer GAL. “And we’re not under that. We can say, ‘No, this is not good.’ ”
The 3rd District GAL program began turning away cases in early July.
That wasn’t an easy decision, said Kiesel.
She had to make sure volunteers and staff could devote enough time and attention to the most tenuous foster cases.
So they began letting go of cases for children ages 12 and older — who qualify for an attorney, which helps — and for children in more stable situations.
“[Some] are in certain foster homes where, if it’s going to go off the rails, they’ll pick up the phone and let us know,” she said.
Hundreds of volunteers needed
Kiesel worries that without GALs to monitor what’s happening to them, foster children could end up in less-than-ideal situations — returned to a parent who is still using methamphetamines or whose “stable housing” is a friend’s garage.
The GALs also help gather information about each child’s life, listen to parents’ fears and help answer questions, and communicate with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the attorneys working on the case.
“We’re the glue,” Schwers said.
The program still needs GALs for 290 of the 432 children it serves, Kiesel said. For now, just two full-time employees and one part-time employee are overseeing those cases, she said. The program’s 22 volunteers are working their own cases — some in which several children from the same family are split up into different homes.
There’s also a shortage in the 4th District that includes Ada County and neighboring rural counties.
The program there, operated by Boise-based Family Advocates, has 67 volunteer guardians ad litem who are paired with pro-bono attorneys. That’s about 100 fewer than it needs to handle more than 400 children.
As a result, the courts have reassigned dozens of children’s cases to the county public defender.
“I think the case volume has become more complex and more frequent,” said Jaime Hansen, who runs Family Advocates. “Elmore County, for example, has really exploded … everything from a dirty house [with] more fecal matter on the ground than there is carpet and linoleum … to incest or child abuse.”
The Idaho Supreme Court says that statewide, there aren’t enough volunteers “to provide each child with their own supportive, engaged advocate.”
The shortage of court-appointed volunteers is a longtime, widespread problem. News reports from this year alone have warned of a critical need for volunteers in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio.
Some new funds could help
One of the 3rd District volunteers, Kenzie Emerson, said the work is vital to the health and welfare of foster kids of all ages and genders.
The first case Emerson was assigned was a 1-year-old who “has a ton of different medical issues.”
The social worker thought the baby should be placed with a relative who lived in rural Idaho — reunification with family is a major priority for foster care in Idaho.
But Emerson worried the baby wouldn’t have enough access to medical care in a rural area. She did more investigating, even going to the doctor’s office.
“She [the social worker] had been told one thing by the doctor; I’d been told another thing,” she said. “It was miscommunication.”
The Idaho Legislature recognized the need for more advocacy in the foster-care system this year. So it approved a bump in funding — about 75 percent more than the usual $625,000 appropriation that has stayed constant for several years.
Kiesel’s program got about $100,000 that it used to hire a new recruiter and cover mileage — which ticks up fast for volunteers who represent kids in rural Idaho.
But it’s a tough district to cover. There are six counties in the 3rd Judicial District, ranging from urbanized Canyon County to rural Adams County.
Kiesel recently hired a volunteer recruiter. She hopes to build a volunteer force that can do what it’s supposed to: catch disasters before they happen.
“We’ve had kids who we’ve withdrawn from, and we’ve had to go back on,” she said in August. “Those were failed adoptions where they were in a pre-adoptive home, and something happened, and the placement blew up, and the parents basically dropped the kids off at Health and Welfare.”
Want to volunteer?
For other parts of the state, the Idaho Supreme Court provides contact information at isc.idaho.gov/guardian/location.