Guardian ad Litem workers serve as special advocates for kids entering foster care across Idaho. The work is rewarding, but the hours are long, the caseloads are high, and in some regions, the volunteers are few.
Merrin Packer, recruitment and retention specialist with the program in Idaho's 3rd District Court region, told the Idaho Press-Tribune that the district is operating with the lowest number of volunteers and the second-highest number of cases in the state.
The region has 33 volunteers now — a recent jump from 28 — and 664 cases. That compares to the nearby 4th District, which had 710 cases and 88 volunteers last year.
Guardian ad Litem workers, also known as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), investigate a child's home life in an effort to determine the best living situation for the child.
Guardian ad Litem workers became a federal requirement in the 1980s, when new rules mandated children must have a court-appointed special advocate when entering into foster care, said Christina Walker, the 3rd District program's executive director.
These advocates work closely with attorneys, judges, families and children while determining the child's needs.
Many of these advocates get their start the same way, said Packer, who became an advocate in child protective cases because of her own childhood experiences. She was introduced to foster care through her two adopted brothers as well as a niece she cared for at a young age.
Walker, the program's director, was a foster parent before taking on the role.
During fiscal year 2017, Idaho had 3,323 child protective cases, according to a 2018 report from the Office of Performance Evaluations.
"Guardian ad Litem programs struggle to recruit and support enough volunteer advocates to serve all the children and youth in their district's child protective cases," the report states.
"Program stability and consistency is also affected by the amount of energy put into sustainability efforts, such as fundraising and public awareness."
As nonprofits, Guardian ad Litem programs aren't meant to rely on state grants as their sole source of income, said Sarah Thomas, administrative director of the Idaho Supreme Court.
State Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, said the funding offered by the state was boosted in fiscal year 2017 by about $400,000.
The judicial branch's budget states in fiscal year 2017 shows the programs received $641,700. The second grant, which boosted the funding to a little over $1 million for fiscal year 2018, was given for the purpose of recruiting, training and supporting volunteers, Thomas said.
Walker says her office is experiencing a financial crisis. That's prompting Packer and Walker to take their message to the community, seeking donations and more volunteers.
The outreach effort is showing some progress: Packer said 12 people showed up for the first training session in May.
"If we aren't here, the children in the 3rd District literally won't have someone whose sole job it is to look out for their best interest," Packer said.
Children who have a guardian ad Litem are 50 percent less likely to re-enter foster care, Walker said. And Walker said studies have shown the children perform better in school and are more likely to graduate.
The volunteers also form close relationships with some of the children. Packer said some guardians bake birthday cakes for the children — sometimes the only birthday cake they will get.
"We're doing all that we can for the children in our community," Packer said, "but we really need the community to step up as well and do all they can for the community."