Just days into Wyoming’s legislative session, bills to expand legal counsel to children and parents in child welfare court were killed by a lack of support. But half of the package has already been raised from the dead.
House Bill (HB) 18 would have moved child representation out of the Office of State Public Defenders and establish a standalone office for the Wyoming Guardian Ad Litem Program, addressing concerns about conflicts of interest. That proposal was a budget neutral ask.
The bill had more yeas than nays, with a 38-21 vote, but a two-thirds majority is required in the Wyoming House on the first hurdle of introducing a bill for consideration.
Despite being killed in the House, the Senate reintroduced the Wyoming Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) bill on Thursday and moved it to the judiciary committee with a two-thirds vote.
Wyoming GALs represent children involved in child welfare and juvenile justice cases, while public defenders often represent the children’s parents or relatives.
“There is no monetary involvement, this is strictly a separation of offices to eliminate conflict of interest,” said Sen. R.J. Kost (R), who introduced the bill on the Senate floor.
HB 17 would have created a similar standalone parent representation program, providing representation for parents whose children enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems. That bill would have required an add to the biennium budget of $5.4 million.
Last August, the Wyoming Judiciary Committee approved the plans for a standalone office of child representation, but tabled the parent office discussion for its November meeting, during which it was also placed in the legislation hopper for this year.
In the House, the parent representation office bill received 25 votes for 34 votes against.
“It’s not surprising that it failed because it’s a budget year,” said Lisa Finkey, coordinator for the Wyoming Children’s Justice Project.
The state is grappling with projected budget shortfalls in the coming years, especially as the coal sector continues to decline.
Despite failure of the office for parent representation, Finkey said work will continue to educate around the issue and ultimately bring it back to the legislature in the future.
“We need to get out and educate the community more,” Finkey said. “It all comes down to families. We’ve got to be able to keep families together.”
Advocates hoped Wyoming would be one of the earliest states to attempt to access new funding for legal representation under Title IV-E, the main child welfare entitlement, after a federal rule change in late 2018. Advocates for the bills estimated that each program could receive around $625,000 in IV-E funds.