Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Panel: Lack of trained investigators at Office of Guardian ad Litem a concern - Utah

By brooke adams

A legislative panel on Tuesday declined to approve the Office of Guardian ad Litem’s request for more money to hire an additional attorney and increase wages, saying it was more concerned the office has no trained investigators to assist staff in reviewing child welfare cases.

Director Rick Smith told the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel that the office’s 41 attorneys, appointed by judges to represent the best interests of children in court proceedings, are currently averaging about 200 clients — twice as many as recommended by national standards. The lone attorney assigned to Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties currently has nearly 400 clients, Smith said.

"The concern at this point is we have an attorney out there who may be committing malpractice simply because he has too many clients to represent in an appropriate way," Smith told the lawmakers.

He asked the panel to approve $202,000 in ongoing funds to add an attorney and a support staff member. He also asked the panel to consider addressing inadequate staff wages in next year’s budget. Smith said staff turnover was 21 percent last year, but has been as high as 25 percent in recent years as staff seek higher salaries elsewhere — including the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

"Our attorneys are paid 34 percent less than other attorneys in state government," Smith said. "That’s a problem."

The panel was particularly disturbed, however, that the office has no investigators, as required by statute, to do independent casework.

"We’ve never had funding to hire those investigators," Smith said. "Our attorneys do a lot of it; our support staff do a lot."

As a result, the office uses a lot of investigative work done by the Division of Child and Family Services, he said.

That, combined with heavy case loads, means the office’s attorneys work "a minimum of 40 hours a week," Smith said. But because the state is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, "we can work them a lot of hours and they don’t get paid overtime for it, so that is a very common practice."

A motion to approve the office’s budget request was withdrawn after one lawmaker requested more information and two others expressed concerns with the office’s operations.

"I have some real concerns about what the Guardian ad Litem is supposed to do and not supposed to do. So when you’re asking for more money, I’m not too sympathetic," said Rep. Christine F. Watkins, D-Price.

Watkins said her view stemmed from conversations with constituents and first-hand observations of cases in which she felt a Guardian ad Litem stepped "out of what I would consider normal boundaries." She described one attorney who told a child’s parent she had a personality disorder. There was no such diagnosis in the mother’s case, she added.

Watkins said that highlighted the need for trained investigators because "you’re relying on people who shouldn’t be investigating."

Rep. Merlynn T. Newbold, R-South Jordan and the panel’s co-chairwoman, said the Guardian ad Litem’s role is to "advocate for the child and not for the state, and if you’re relying on information from [DCFS] and haven’t done anything on your own, that gives me concern."


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