It’s tough to come up with an “average” child in an Idaho child protection case, but we’d start with something like this:
About 3 years old. Still in diapers. Spends most of his time in a crib or playpen. Lives in a house filled with trash and fecal matter. Has parents who struggle with addiction, mental health problems and their own childhood trauma. Desperately needs help.
On paper, Idaho’s response is to make sure that child has representation: either a volunteer guardian or a public defender or both. But as a recent report issued by the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluation (OPE) blandly put it, “the state has a shortage of volunteer advocates.”
And that means the 3-year-old isn’t going to get the help she needs.
Idaho’s Child Protective Act requires court-appointed representation for children and youth taken into state protection. Part of that is a guardian ad litem — a trained volunteer — who is part of the Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. In the Fourth Judicial District (Ada, Elmore, Boise, and Valley counties), CASA is administered by the non-profit Family Advocates program.
The OPE report put a spotlight on our ugly secret: Idaho’s CASA programs desperately need volunteer guardians ad litem and pro-bono attorneys to represent children in cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. In a sample study in the Fourth District alone, OPE found that 140 children last fiscal year didn’t have either a guardian ad litem or an attorney to represent their best interests in court. Those children’s voices simply didn’t get heard.
Just to keep up with current needs, Family Advocates needs another 166 volunteer guardians and another 74 attorneys to help the 710 children for whom a court has requested an advocate.
When we don’t have enough volunteers, the kids don’t get what the OPE report says they need: consistent and effective representation that grows out of early appointment, training and stability. Guardians should get involved in each case as soon as possible, should be well prepared to do the work, and should have staying power to stick with their young charges.
Not only are the CASA programs struggling to find enough volunteers, they’re also having to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to prop up their shoestring budgets.
So here’s the plea: Volunteer your time, talent or treasure to help these children.
To be a volunteer, you’ll have to complete about 30 hours of pre-service training and every year thereafter you’ll go through 12 hours of continuing education. There’s no “right” background or educational level needed; we have volunteers from all walks of life. What they have in common is a passion for helping children stay safe.
You won’t be alone. The Family Advocates team will support you every step of the way. But you will be giving that 3-year-old a voice and a pathway to a better future.
Jaime Hansen of Boise is executive director of Family Advocates. For more information about the program, go to www.familyadvocates.org.