NACC Study - Evaluation of the Guardian Ad Litem System in Nebraska
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Posted by: Daniel Trujillo
The NACC has prepared an exhaustive study of the Nebraska GAL system, evaluating it on 15 different measures. The Legislature asked for the report to highlight good practices and offer recommendations to improve weak areas, based especially on best practices occurring in other jurisdictions.
Overall, we found that the main challenge is that despite the best intentions of individual GALs, the system of child representation in Nebraska lacks basic accountability and is therefore failing Nebraska’s children.
We identified the following strengths in the current system:
Ø Children have a statutory right to a GAL in every case, who must be an attorney
Ø GALs are in fact appointed in every case, very early in the life of the case
Ø GALs are present for almost every court appearance
However, we also found the following areas crying out for reform:
Ø There is not one GAL system in Nebraska; there are 93 different systems,
Ø There is no uniform, comprehensive set of practice standards for GALs to follow
Ø GALs do not routinely tell the court what their child-clients’ own views on the case are – in large part because they don’t know what their clients’ views are
Ø GALs are insufficiently familiar with their clients’ needs
Ø GALs do not receive adequate training or supervision
Ø In one county in particular, individual attorneys’ caseloads are crushingly high
The GALs job is to challenge DHHS, to make sure that it is doing its job, on a case-by-case basis. Our findings reveal that instead of this model of the GAL being a zealous advocate for the needs of children, the Nebraska system permits them to serve as a rubber stamp. In the words of one foster youth we talked to, having a GAL is "like having another caseworker.” In the words of one judge, "They just sit there.”
To remedy these systemic, structural failings, the NACC recommends the creation of an independent, statewide entity to ensure that GALs are accountable to their clients and to practice requirements. Among other things, this entity would be charged with implementing the following reforms:
Ø The promulgation of comprehensive, mandatory practice standards
Ø The development of a client feedback system and monitoring to ensure GALs are visiting their clients in accordance with practice requirements
Ø Enforcement of new, mandatory training requirements and a caseload cap
Ø The development of a mentoring program to help new GALs learn this difficult but rewarding practice area
Children are entitled to effective assistance of counsel, as a matter of due process of law. Without significant structural reform to create a system grounded in accountability, Nebraska will continue to see poor outcomes for its children.