By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
But Irene Cook, the executive director of Denver's Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA), disagrees. "It's absolutely critical that a child's representation in court is based on a thorough independent investigation," she says.
State senator Elsie Lacy of Aurora, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, says lawmakers expect GALs to do their own footwork. "It was our understanding that the GALs would conduct their own investigations," says Lacy. "Now we hear they're getting most of their information from Social Services. That's not the way it was supposed to be."
Independent recommendations by GALs are crucial, because "sometimes Social Services is wrong," says Roy Wallace. "Sometimes the Social Services worker has developed a bias," he says. "There needs to be a check and balance."
Judge Wakefield agrees. He says independent investigations are necessary, because Social Services may have other masters besides the best interests of the child, including budgetary constraints that make recommending private placements or extra supervision costly and unpopular actions.
But despite the findings of the study, which was conducted by a third-year CU law student, Wakefield isn't convinced that GALs go along to get along. "I haven't seen too many guardians lie down to Social Services," he says. "I think people get the wrong impression because they [GALs and social workers] sit on the same side of the courtroom."
Melvin Okamoto is calling another case on his docket. They call it a "forthwith" down in Juvenile Court--a quickly scheduled hearing (usually with only a day or so of notice) to determine a child's placement or a pressing custody issue. The attorney for Denver Social Services is present. The attorney for the respondent parent is present. The social worker is present. The child's mother is present.
The GAL doesn't show.
Okamoto proceeds anyway. The case is quickly disposed of. The Department of Social Service's recommendation is accepted without question.
Later Okamoto hesitates a moment when asked if GALs often fail to show up in court. "A lot?" he says, considering the question. "Yes, I'd say they don't show up a lot of the time."
Art Lucero, the city attorney primarily responsible for representing Denver Social Services, says in his experience, GALs are absent "more often than not" at forthwith hearings. "There's just no time to schedule it in," he explains. "Sometimes GALs have so many cases [that] they're discussing one in the hall when they're supposed to be in court, and vice-versa."
Judge Wakefield says he's aware of the attendance problem, especially at forthwith hearings, but he sees no solution. "It concerns me, but as a practical matter, I can't do anything about it," he says. "Every lawyer has more than one case, except Johnnie Cochran," jokes the judge, "and even he has the fertilizer thing."
For a system that has been sorely neglected for years, guardian ad litem representation is facing a sudden surge of scrutiny.
State representative Tony Grampsas of Evergreen, chairman of the legislature's Joint Budget Committee, is promising hearings on the subject in November. Grampsas doesn't mince words about his impression of the GAL system: "I don't know of too many [GALs] who are doing their job," he says.
In the other chamber, Elsie Lacy echoes Grampsas's concerns.
"We've gotten reports that they're not doing what they should do," says Lacy. "Not talking to the kids, not conducting individual investigations. I've been on the budget committee for two years, and we've been getting complaints ever since I've started."
The Colorado State Judicial Department is conducting its own study of the problem. Using $90,000 of federal grant money, the department is assessing the entire dependency-and-neglect system across nine judicial districts. "We've just started looking into Denver's juvenile court," explains Laurie Shera, the state policy analyst in charge of the study. Her agency hasn't come to any conclusions yet, says Shera, but it expects to complete its study in December.
That's just about the time that State Auditor Tim O'Brien will be handing a report of his own to the legislative audit committee, an eight-member bicameral group that reviews audits and recommends remedial legislation. O'Brien says no particular concern prompted him to audit the GAL program. "It's just a program in state government that hasn't been audited for a period of time and was due," he says. O'Brien estimates that the last time the GAL program underwent a substantive program evaluation was at least seven or eight years ago.
Colorado statute prevents O'Brien from discussing the audit's scope, focus or findings until the legislative committee has received the report and released it. O'Brien says that he plans to give legislators the report by December 5.
By that time, roughly another 160 kids will have been appointed GALs in Denver Juvenile Court. At least a quarter of them will have Allen Alderman as their attorney.
People have tried to reform Colorado's GAL system before. There have been three attempts in the last three years to make improvements, or at least provide a safety net for some of the children subjected to the current system. All three have been squelched.
In the first instance, the Colorado Bar Association's Juvenile Law Forum Committee and Family Law Section worked for three years drafting, publishing and revising proposed standards of practice for guardian ad litems. Those standards require GALs to have an independent position concerning the child they represent, although they do allow the attorney to send surrogates to meet with the child client. The CBA standards also discuss education and training for GALs, as well as appropriate compensation guidelines.