On Monday, a bill to move the Wyoming Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) program out of the Office of State Public Defenders to its own entity passed its final hurdle in the state House of Representatives before heading to the governor’s desk.
The bill was originally killed on first introduction in the House for failing to gain a two-thirds vote which is required during the state’s budget session for a bill to move forward. The bill was reintroduced in the Senate as Senate File 120 and quickly moved through both houses. However a bill to create a similar Office of Parent Representation was killed upon introduction and never reintroduced.
Several senators emphasized that there was no additional cost to the state, but just an opportunity to improve the representation of children in foster care and juvenile court cases by moving the GAL office to a standalone entity answering directly to the governor.
“More than anything, as an entity, this bill will allow us to develop a more independent strategic plan,” said Dan Wilde, deputy director of the Wyoming GAL program. Included in that could be the creation of new positions in the GAL office such as supervising attorneys and more dedicated training specific to the needs of child representation in court.
The new Office of Guardian Ad Litem will be led by an agency director who will be selected by the governor. Even though Wilde has been the deputy director since 2007, he will be required to apply for the new agency director position.
If the governor signs off on the bill, it will go into effect July 1.
Earlier this year the Wyoming GAL office entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Wyoming Department of Family Services to apply for Title IV-E funds, which is the largest entitlement that pays for foster care. A rule change made by the U.S. Children’s Bureau in late 2018 allows states to seek matching funds to pay for legal fees of children and parents in dependency court.
Wyoming projects being able to capture $320,000 in IV-E funds each biennium, Wilde said plans are being created to utilize those funds to build a more comprehensive legal representation office.
“Being an agency will allow us to use those IV-E funds to serve in the best interest of the child,” Wilde said. That will include hiring former foster youth in four or five of the state’s largest communities to consult with the attorneys and contracting with social workers and therapists to provide more supports to children and families involved in child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Wilde said he anticipates that those funds will start coming in by June 30.
While this legislative session was a success for child representation, the attempt to add a similar office for parents investigated by child welfare systems was squashed upon introduction and never reintroduced. The bill, which would have added $5.4 million to the biennium budget, failed to receive the two-thirds vote on introduction. This session the state’s legislators have been grappling with projected budget shortfalls in the coming years.
As a long-time advocate for children in the state, Wilde is equally supportive of the creation of an Office of Parent Representation.
“Clearly it’s been an educational process,” Wilde said. “We need more detailed and concrete information about how that bill benefits children and families. You need champions out in the community to speak on these bills.”
When the bill failed earlier in the session, Lisa Finkey, coordinator for the Wyoming Children’s Justice Project, said work to reintroduce the bill at a later time will require more education about the impact an Office of Parent Representation will have on the state’s children especially.
“It all comes down to families,” Finkey said. “Families are the cornerstones of our communities. We’ve got to be able to keep families together.”