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Wyoming Office of Guardian ad Litem suspects child abuse and neglect cases under-reported amid COVID-19 pandemic

Wyoming Office of Guardian ad Litem Director Joseph Belser. (Screenshot via Wyoming Legislature, YouTube)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Office of Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a state and county-funded agency that helps provide representation for children in juvenile court and also provides representation to children in termination of parental rights and appeal cases.

Wyoming Office of GAL Director Joseph Belcher on Monday presented the agency’s budget request for the upcoming 2023-2024 biennium to the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC). The JAC began budget hearings last week with state agencies presenting requests as the legislature prepares to enter the 2022 Budget Session in February.

Belcher began on Monday by noting that the Wyoming Office of GAL was transferred out of the Office of the Public Defender effective July 1, 2020. This means that the newly independent office is presenting a budget request for a full biennium for the first time.

The Wyoming Office of GAL’s budget request for the 2023-2024 biennium shows that the agency is requesting a total budget of $5,014,093. Belcher noted that the agency’s budget accounts for less than 1% of Wyoming’s overall budget and that the agency’s request accounts for about 0.25% of Governor Mark Gordon’s overall budget request for the upcoming biennium.

Rep. Bob Nicholas (Laramie County), co-chair of the JAC, asked Belcher to provide some insight into what went well for the agency in its first year outside of the Office of the Public Defender and what challenges the Wyoming Office of GAL may have encountered.

Belcher said that the number of child abuse and neglect cases reported to the Wyoming Office of GAL saw a downturn during the 2020-2021 school year. Since the Office of GAL coordinates with school district employees who report abuse and neglect cases where required by law, Belcher explained that this downturn in cases was likely associated with students being out of in-person school settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belcher added that “as schools go forward full-time, those numbers are increasing back up.”

In its budget request, GAL explained that it provided services to 2,693 children during fiscal year 2020, which dropped to 2,264 in fiscal year 2021. In fiscal year 2020, the agency assigned 992 new cases to GAL attorneys. The number of new cases assigned dropped to 928 in fiscal year 2021.

“The amount of cases has decreased due to COVID-19 and the schools closing in March 2020,” GAL’s budget request states. “Cases have not increased because students have remained out of school during the 2021 school year and families moved out of state because of economic reasons. Those in the child welfare industry believe there is a large population of underreported children involved in abuse and neglect.”

Belcher described the agency as attempting to “maintain status quo” through its first year independent of the Office of the Public Defender. He added that GAL’s budget request for the upcoming biennium requests a similar amount of funding as it did previously to becoming its own agency.

Belcher explained that much of the agency’s budget is to pay for contractors throughout the state. GAL works with 24 contract attorneys. The Wyoming Office of GAL also has positions for ten state employees, including a director, an accounting analyst, six-full time attorneys and two paralegals. Belcher said on Monday that one of the attorney positions is currently unfilled, though the agency plans to fill this vacancy in spring 2022.

Nicholas asked whether the Office of GAL saw any cost savings due to fewer cases being reported to it amid the pandemic. Belcher said that the GAL saw a $400,000 cut to the amount of funding it was provided for contractors two years ago. He said that he thinks the agency is able to adequately operate at the level of its current funding.

Rep. Lloyd Larsen (Fremont County) asked Belcher to explain further how GAL contracts with attorneys around the state. Belcher said that some attorneys who work solely as guardian ad litems are paid a flat rate. These attorneys are required to carry up to 80 juvenile cases a year. Part-time guardian ad litems that the office contracts are paid a lower amount. Belcher explained that they might be paid $1,000 a month to handle ten cases in a year or $4,000 to handle 40 cases in a year.

Guardian ad litems are assigned cases through a supervising GAL attorney who in turn is assigned cases through county-level attorneys offices.

Larsen also asked for more information of the Office of GAL’s claim in its budget request that “[t]hose in the
child welfare industry believe there is a large population of underreported children involved in abuse and neglect.” He said that the statement seemed to be a claim not supported by evidence.

Belcher acknowledged that the statement was broad. He said that the Office of GAL works with school districts, the Department of Family Services and other child welfare agencies and that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there seemed to be a general sense there were likely children in abuse and neglect situations that agencies were unaware of due to the pandemic’s disruption, particularly in regard to the disruption in normal school operations.

Rep. Andy Schwartz (Teton County), asked Belcher if the Office of GAL is noticing any increase in the complexity or severity of cases since it is now seeing the number of cases increase with schools back to more normal functioning.

Belcher said that this is a difficult question to answer given the unique nature of cases that the Office of GAL deals with. He said that “any time kids are involved in trauma, it presents a unique case.”

Nicholas asked Belcher whether he had any suggestions for further statutory changes that may be needed to improve the work of the Office of GAL after its first year and a half operating outside of the Office of the Public Defender.

Belcher said that there likely remain some areas in Wyoming law that need some clean-up where GAL is still connected to the Office of the Public Defender. He said that there may also be a need to clarify in state law what is required of counties in terms of housing the Office of GAL. He said there may be a need to ensure that the Office of GAL is provided with the “appropriate data lines to get connected to the state’s computer system, to our case management system.”

He said there have been some instances in which issues have arisen surrounding counties not providing connectivity to the Office of GAL as it needs.

Belcher added that the Wyoming Office of GAL is also looking at possible recommended changes to state statute that would get guardian ad litem attorneys involved in cases earlier. He said that the federal government is moving toward “a more preventative model for child welfare” and that there may be some changes to Wyoming law that would allow GAL attorneys in Wyoming to get involved in cases earlier than when a petition has been filed to get them involved.

The Wyoming Office of Guardian ad Litem’s narrative in its budget request for the 2023-2024 biennium reads as follows:

SECTION 2. STANDARD BUDGET REQUEST
Part A: Narrative
Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Function:

The Wyoming Office of Guardian ad Litem by SF0120 was transferred out of the Office of the State Public Defender on March 17, 2020, and on July 01, 2020, was codified as a separate operating agency. The Office of GAL employs 6 full-time attorneys and contracts with an additional 24 contract attorneys. All attorneys for the Division provide legal services for children acting as their attorney guardian ad litem in child protection (abuse and neglect), children in need of supervision, delinquency and termination of parental rights cases brought by the State of Wyoming and in appellate actions arising thereof. Pursuant to Statute, the Office has entered into Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with twenty-two (22) of Wyoming’s twenty-three (23) counties. Goshen County has chosen not to accept the
GAL Divisions services. The Counties have agreed to match twenty five percent (25%) of the state funds expended by the GAL Division in their county, pursuant toW.S. § 14-12-103(b).

Procedurally, the District Court appoints the Office of GAL to provide representation for a child upon the initiation of a case or upon request. (All children subject to an abuse/neglect action in Juvenile Court are entitled to a GAL. W.S. § 14-3-416.) The Office of GAL, through use of supervising attorneys, then assigns the case to an attorney.

The Office of GAL is administered by a Director, appointed by the governor, who must be an attorney pursuant to statute. The administrative arm of the Office of GAL consists of the Director, an Accounting Analyst and two paralegals. The Director monitors caseloads, provides trainings and resources and consults on individual cases as needed, maintains files. Attorneys are monitored through periodic audits of files to ensure they are meeting their ethical and statutory duties. All cases are monitored for compliance by certain filed documents kept in the administrative office.

Client Population:

The function of the GAL is to provide legal services as Guardians ad Litem in child protection, children in need of supervision (CHINS), delinquency, and in certain termination of parental rights and appellate cases under a hybrid model of representation, where the GAL is to advocate for the child’s best interests and the child’s wishes at the same time. In FY 20, the GAL provided services to 2,693 children with 992 new cases assigned for GAL Representation. In FY21, the GAL provided services to 2,264 children with 928 new cases. The amount of cases has decreased due to COVID 19 and the schools closing in March 2020. Cases have not increased because students have remained out of school during the 2021 school year and families moved out of state because of economic reasons. Those in the child welfare industry believe there is a large population of underreported children involved in abuse and neglect.


Personal Services (100 Series)

Personal Services (0103, 0104, 0105). The GAL employs 10 persons, including: A Director, an Accounting Analyst, 6 full time attorneys and two paralegals

Support Services (200 Series)

Support Services (0201,0202, 0203, 0204, 0207, 0221, 0222, 0230, 0231, 0236, 0239, 0240, 0241, 0242, 0246, 0251, 0252). This portion of the budget provides for the day to day supplies, equipment and travel support for the 10 employees and 24 Attorney contractors who must provide service within the 22 counties of the state. These expenses are a necessary part of any business function that includes postage costs, office supplies, (paper, pens, notebooks, etc.) equipment, maintenance of the same equipment, travel expenses, and employee training and development.

The Attorneys must meet with the children (clients) and travel to make court appearances in different counties. Therefore, a portion of this series is dedicated to reimbursement for travel expenses. Rates are established by the adoption of the federal rates for lodging, meals and incidental expenses, and mileage. Travel may be necessary out of state if a child is placed out-of-state or if the child’s family resides out-of-state.

The 10 employees have computers, printers, copiers, and fax machines that have become a necessary and important tool in accomplishing their duties.

Central Services/Data Services (400 Series)

Central Services (0410, 0420). These services are vital services provided by the Department of A&I and are pass through costs. The expenses include telephone service and data connections (Internet connections) for all employees of the program.

Contractual Services (900 Series)

Contractual Services (0901, 0905). The Office of GAL is responsible for statewide Guardian ad Litem representation of children in child protection, children in need of supervision, delinquency and certain termination of parental rights and appellate cases. The Agency has contracted with 24 Attorneys to provide this representation.

This portion of the budget pays for the contractual obligations as well as travel expenses, some expert consultants, and speakers for training.

Part B: Revenue

The funding is from the General Fund with authority to bill the counties for a 25% match for every dollar spent.

BFY 19/20 Revenue Source 6133: $1,008,949 projected to be billed and received

BFY 21/22 Revenue Source 6133: $1,063,802 projected to be billed and received.

Wyoming Office of GAL

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