Topeka, KS— Rob and Carla Ingraham believed their grandchildren lived in danger.
They complained to Kansas child protection authorities, figuring that would keep the grandchildren in the Ingrahams’ home — state-sanctioned foster care often granted to relatives.
Yet they contend the state never truly investigated the case and, at least as troublesome to them, the lawyer appointed to argue for the children’s best interests neither knew the kids nor grasped the dynamics that the Ingrahams thought put the children in harm’s way.
Ultimately, the lawyer moved the children from their grandparents back to the home of their parents.
The Ingrahams stand with other foster families who contend a critical part of the state’s child welfare system fails to protect kids because the lawyers assigned to look out for kids — known as guardians ad litem — either don’t take the time or have the time to study their cases.
Guardians ad litem represent the best interest of the children in court and do not work for any other party — not the foster, not biological parents.
The Kansas Supreme Court requires them to talk with the children, reach their own conclusions on what is best for them and report that to a judge. They’re also supposed to conduct independent investigations into allegations. In the case of their grandchildren, the Ingrahams say, that didn’t happen.
Their concerns were supported by multiple court-appointed special advocate reports that said the state was reunifying the children too quickly.
“This (court-appointed special advocate, or CASA) is concerned therapist recommendations are not being given consideration in the decision to reintegrate so soon, especially in light of what (one child) shared with her therapist about being scared her dad would hurt her,” a report said. “This CASA is concerned the emotional wellbeing of (the children) is being overlooked without the ability for them to continue to have the support of their individual therapist.”
Despite the reports, the guardian ad litem filed a court motion and a judge ordered the children to be sent home with their parents.
“You can imagine the terror, the fear,” Carla Ingraham said when the couple was told of the change. “They didn’t even let us say goodbye — two and a half years. They didn’t even let us say goodbye.”
The Ingrahams say the court-appointed attorney rarely, if ever, met with the children and was difficult to work with. Not seeing the child, they said, means he couldn’t have possibly known what was in the children’s best interest.
Several foster parents told the Kansas News Service that it can be difficult to see a guardian ad litem and that people in that position rarely see the children they represent. These attorneys could get updates from caseworkers, but some children have multiple caseworkers and that makes consistent exchanges of information hard.
District Judge Kellie Hogan said she understands parents’ frustration, but she said guardians ad litem are overworked. Their caseloads can be further bloated in urban parts of the state where there are more kids. Hogan, who was a court-appointed attorney before she became a judge, said some people represented hundreds of children.
“You can’t,” she said, “be everywhere all the time.”
Foster parents and statewide advocacy groups all had similar concerns: that lawyers paid to look out for foster kids aren’t coming to court with the background and insight into the cases of the children they represent.
Amy Bryant, who was both a foster parent and a social worker, said some lawyers appointed to be a guardian ad litem come through for the kids by exploring their cases. But she watched in court as one child’s attorney called the girl he was representing a boy.
“Multiple times,” she said. “I remember thinking at that point, like wow, this guy legitimately has no idea about this child.”
That was from a decade ago, but Bryant said things have not improved since.
An unresponsive and unprepared guardian ad litem is especially problematic, Bryant said. They carry real sway in the courtroom. These lawyers don’t make the final decision, but their recommendation can change a child’s life.
Grant Brazill, a parents’ attorney in juvenile court, said the representatives should have around 60 cases at most. Instead, they often juggle far more.
The state has 493 guardians ad litem. There is no clear total for the number of cases they have to represent. Caseloads are tracked by each judicial district with no statewide information available.
In Johnson County, the “full” guardian ad litem positions — who are contracted to work 20 hours a week — average 43 cases. “Half” positions they contract for 10 hours average 22 cases. With their workloads, Brazill said it “would require a Herculean, superhuman effort” for them to meet with every child they represent.
Guardian ad litem Danielle Packer has 66 child-in-need-of-care cases. Of those, she represents children in 32 of them. Packer says guardians ad litem are overworked and underpaid, and more resources are needed to attract people to the field.
Each county is responsible for staffing guardians ad litem. The attorneys contracted by the county can turn down cases, but someone has to take it, even if all the contracted positions are overwhelmed.”
“You do what needs to be done when it needs to be done,” Packer said.
Changes could be coming in Kansas.
State Rep. Gail Finney, a foster parent and a Wichita Democrat, is preparing legislation requiring every guardian ad litem to submit a written report detailing how often they’ve talked to a child.
She hopes requiring this will show the judge how well that person knows the child. State requirements mandate that guardians ad litem keep in touch with children, their therapists and others, but Finney said that is not happening.
“That is just devastating to our youth,” she said. “There’s a myriad of reasons that have been given as to why there’s no accountability … that needs to change.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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