Adoptive parents in Kansas are unhappy with the representation of children in court. Ad litem guards say they are overworked | KCUR 89.3

TOPEKA, Kansas— Rob and Carla Ingraham thought their grandchildren were in danger.

They complained to Kansas child welfare authorities, believing it would keep the grandchildren in the Ingrahams’ home – State-sanctioned foster care is often granted to relatives.

Yet they argue that the state never really investigated the case and, at least as embarrassingly for them, the lawyer appointed to defend the children’s best interests neither knew the children nor grasped the dynamics that, according to the Ingrahams, endangered the children.

Ultimately, the attorney filed a motion to bring their grandparents’ children back to their parents’ home.

The Ingrahams stand with other foster families who argue that a vital part of the state’s child welfare system is failing to protect children because the attorneys charged with supervising the children – known under the name of ad litem tutors – do not take the time or have the time to study their cases.

Guardians ad litem represent the best interests of children in court and do not work for any other party – neither the adoptive parents nor the biological parents.

The Kansas Supreme Court requires ask them to talk with the children, come to their own conclusions about what is best for them, and report it to a judge. They are also supposed to carry out independent investigations into the allegations. In the case of their grandchildren, the Ingrahams say, that did not happen.

Their concerns were backed up by several reports from court-appointed special advocates who said the state was reuniting children too quickly.

“This (Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA) is concerned that the therapist’s recommendations will not be considered in the decision to reinstate so soon, particularly in light of what (a child) has shared with her therapist about fearing her father would hurt her,” said a confidential court report obtained by the Kansas News Service. “This CASA is concerned that (children’s) emotional well-being will be overlooked without the ability for them to continue to receive support from their individual therapist.”

Despite the reports, the guardian ad litem filed a court petition and a judge ordered the children sent home with their parents.

“You can imagine the terror, the fear,” Carla Ingraham said when the couple were 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 public defender rarely, if ever, met the children and was difficult to work with. Not seeing the child, they said, meant he couldn’t know what was in the best interests of the children.

Blaise Mesa

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Kansas News Service

The guardian ad litem requested a change of placement. The Ingrahams say he never properly investigated their allegations.

Several adoptive parents told the Kansas News Service that it can be difficult to see a guardian ad litem, and those in that position rarely see the children they are representing. These lawyers could get updates from social workers, but some children have multiple social workers, which makes it difficult to share information consistently.

District Judge Kellie Hogan said she understood the parents’ frustration, but said ad litem guardians were overworked. Their caseloads can be even more inflated in urban areas of the state where there are more children. Hogan, who was a public defender before becoming 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 attorneys paid to monitor adoptive children aren’t coming to court with the backgrounds and case overview of the children they represent. .

Amy Bryant, who was both a foster parent and a social worker, said some lawyers appointed to be guardian ad litem helped the children by exploring their cases. But she saw in court a child’s lawyer calling the girl he was representing a boy.

“Several times,” she said. “I remember thinking at that point, like wow, this guy legitimately has no idea about this kid.”

That was ten years ago, but Bryant said things haven’t improved since.

An insensitive and unprepared ad litem tutor is particularly problematic, Bryant said. They wield real influence in the courtroom. These lawyers do not make the final decision, but their recommendation can change a child’s life.

Grant Brazill, a parent’s attorney in juvenile court, said representatives should have about 60 cases at most. Instead, they often juggle a lot more.

The state has 493 guardians ad litem. There is no clear total for the number of cases they should represent. Cases are being tracked by each judicial district with no statewide information available.

In Johnson County, “full” ad litem guardianships — who are hired to work 20 hours a week — averaged 43 cases. The “half” positions they contract for 10 hours average 22 cases. With their workload, Brazill said it would “take Herculean, superhuman effort” for them to meet every child they represent.

Ad litem guardian Danielle Packer has 66 cases of children in need of care. Of these, she represents children in 32 of them. Packer says ad litem tutors are overworked and underpaid, and more resources are needed to get people into the field.

Each county is responsible for staffing ad litem guardians. County-hired attorneys can turn down cases, but someone has to take it, even if all contract positions are overwhelmed.”

“You do what needs to be done when it needs to be done,” Packer said.

Changes could be coming to Kansas.

State Rep. Gail Finney, adoptive parent and Wichita Democrat, is preparing legislation requiring every guardian ad litem to submit a written report detailing how often they spoke to a child.

She hopes this will show the judge how well that person knows the child. State requirements require ad litem guardians to stay in contact with children, their therapists and others, but Finney said that’s not happening.

“It’s just devastating for our young people,” she said. “There are a myriad of reasons that have been given as to why there is 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 [email protected]

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health, and how they relate to public policy.

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