Jamie Hansen

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The past three years have shown increasing interest in children’s welfare in Idaho. Now, more than ever, children at risk need help.

During this past legislative session alone, lawmakers considered proposals on teen marriage, on female child genital mutilation, on sex education options, and so on. There’s a long list of measures, some successful and some not, that affect the well-being of Idaho children.

For child advocates, one of the most troublesome was a proposal to reduce already-minimal children’s rights in child protection cases. Briefly, the statement of purpose for House Bill 170 said it “buttresses Idaho’s Child Protective Act by notifying parents or guardians of their legal rights with respect to child protection investigations.” But as a practical matter, the bill would have turned every child protection investigation into an adversarial proceeding at the outset, even giving parents the right to bar investigators from talking to the children.

The bill passed the House 44-23. The Senate did not take action before the session adjourned.

As the pros and cons of the bill were discussed, many of us wondered how to strike the right balance – that is, how do we prevent parental rights from overshadowing children’s rights in Idaho?

Child protection cases are those in which children have been deemed in imminent danger and removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Every year there are thousands of these cases in Idaho. In those cases, adults already have the upper hand: they have attorneys, their own or appointed, and they are generally able to voice their concerns or defend themselves.

The children, on the other hand, don’t have the same voice. They need adults willing to speak for them. That’s where the volunteer Guardian ad Litem (GAL) system kicks in. GALs investigate cases and make recommendations to the courts. About half of Idaho’s children also rely on pro bono attorneys to represent these volunteer GALs and the best interests of the children.

Still, each year child protection cases proceed without anyone representing the child’s interests. That’s because Idaho doesn’t have enough volunteer GALs to fill the demand and the nonprofits offering the services are not fully funded. And the problem is getting worse as time goes on.

The Family Advocates program is reaching out this month and next to find volunteers willing to stand up for children. No matter which district you live in, the CASA Program will give volunteers the training they need to get started. The programs will be by their sides every step of the way.

The conversations about child welfare will go on and on, but the real action is in Idaho’s courtrooms and in those day-to-day decisions that affect the lives of real children. And the real heroes will be the volunteers willing to speak for those children.

For more information go to familyadvocates.org or 3rddistrictguardian.org.

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