Wyoming is hoping to use newly available federal funds to improve its guarantees of representation to children and parents involved in child welfare proceedings.
The two proposals working their way through Wyoming’s Judiciary Committee would move child representation out of the Office of State Public Defenders, and establish a standalone office. At the same time, a parent representation program would be created similar to the state’s child representation program and both would become two standalone offices focused solely on counsel for the two parties.
Representation of children in the state’s child welfare courts is administered by the Wyoming Guardians Ad Litem (GAL) Program, which is currently part of the state public defender’s office.
“Legal representation is critical,” said Dan Wilde, division deputy for Wyoming GAL. “The critical things we see on a day-to-day basis is ensuring all of the laws are adhered to and implemented correctly and hearings happen in a timely manner.”
GAL assigns someone to represent the best interests of children in child welfare cases at the time a petition is filed. While some states don’t require GALs to be lawyers, Wyoming mandates that in state statute. The impetus for the move being considered is that it is presently overseen by the office that sometimes represents parents – not necessarily the opposition, but another constituency with interests before the court.
“There’s a conflict of interest of being housed in the Office of the State Public Defender,” said Dan Wilde, division deputy for Wyoming GAL. “There’s an inherent conflict. In Wyoming we’ve done an excellent job of being aware of that conflict.”
But the most recent budget trimming requested by the governor brought that problem front and center. An economic downturn a few years ago and continued struggles, especially in the state’s coal industry, have led lawmakers to trim budgets.
“The public defender’s office decided the adult side couldn’t afford to take the last round of budget cuts,” Wilde said. “Therefore, based on the agency as a whole, the cuts were taken from the GAL Division Budget. Now we don’t have sufficient funds to go the end of the budget cycle in June 2020.”
The state currently funds the GAL office to the tune of $5.4 million per biennium, with 75 percent coming from state funding and counties required to match the other 25 percent.
The creation of the standalone Wyoming Guardians Ad Litem Program is a budget-neutral ask that would secure the funding and programing to one central entity.
The other proposal is to create a parent representation office with a budget equal to that of the GAL office, $5.4 million per biennium with a 75/25 cost split between state and county. Currently, parents of children who enter foster care do not always receive counsel in a timely manner the state. Each county has its own process for how attorneys are appointed and representatives have varying degrees of training specific to child welfare.
That inconsistency of legal representation is what advocates are trying to change.
“The essence of equality in Wyoming is the concern for us,” Wilde said. “It’s concerning that a family in one county wouldn’t receive the same quality and timely access to counsel as they would in another county.”
Children receive representation when a petition for removal is made that happens in the first 48 hours after a child is removed from the home. The first hearing, known as a shelter care hearing, takes place in that two-day window and is where it is decided if a child will remain in foster care or is safe to return home.
In 2018, the median number of days from petition filing to appointment of representation is four for GAL and 21 for a parent attorney, according to data collected by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
“Quality counsel decreases the time kids are in foster care,” said Whitney Agopian, Wyoming’s Children’s Justice Project coordinator. “You are trying to reduce the trauma and assist the families in the upfront services. In some cases, placement in foster care could be avoided entirely.”
By creating a parent defense program, attorneys would receive specialized training in parent defense, much like the 32 full- or part-time contracted attorneys with Wyoming GAL receive through support from the Children’s Justice Project, the state’s federally funded court improvement project. Full-time GALs earn $7,800 a month and have a maximum of 80 children on their caseload. That is among the most strict caseload caps in the country.
GALs are required to have 10 legal education credits specific to child welfare court. That training can be obtained through GAL’s annual conference, and training offered by the Children’s Justice Project. A handbook helps guide attorneys through their duties as a child representative. Last year, they went through Child Welfare Law and Practice training, which is also known as The Red Book.
“We make sure everybody has access to information and tools,” Wilde said.
Attorneys that represent parents don’t have an agency to facilitate the training and there are no requirements for representing parents involved in child welfare proceedings.
While the $5.4 million per biennium for the parent legal representation program is a new budget ask for the state, officials believe that they can draw in resources from outside the state budget to help.
A recent change in federal law allows state child welfare agencies to draw down funds from Title IV-E, the main federal child welfare entitlement, to pay for the legal fees of both kids and parents. Advocates are estimating that each program could receive around $625,000 in IV-E funds.
Wilde said that in the GAL program, that funding could help support the program and add additional support for attorneys like staffing a social worker or increasing pay for contracts.
In the parent representation area, it would help the program get off the ground and much like the GAL program has, streamline the system so parents are receiving high quality counsel across the state.
The Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) is currently creating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Wyoming GAL Program that would enable them to apply for the Title IV-E funding for legal representation.
“We’re working to secure an MOU to create a system that would supplement their budget,” said Stacey Dunlay, social service program manager with DFS.
Currently, the state has reached out to its federal partners for more direction on what documentation is needed to draw down those funds for legal representation.
“We’ve been waiting for the nuts and bolts information,” Dunlay said. “We’re excited about the opportunity and just want to make sure we do it right.”
While the state hasn’t determined when they will make the application, they could be among the first to take advantage of the rule change.
While the state works through the process to apply for the IV-E funding for the legal representation support, the Wyoming Judiciary Committee meets about the two proposals in Casper August 15-16.