Big change to Marion County child advocate system leads to contract dispute, concern over future

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INDIANAPOLIS — A contract dispute between two non-profit providers could lead to a decrease in the number of court-appointed advocates for children in the Marion County court system.

Judges often appoint a Guardian Ad Litem, GAL, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, CASA, to represent children in court. In Marion County, non-profit Child Advocates has been contracted to provide those advocates in CHINS, Child In Need of Services, cases as well as cases of abuse and neglect, since the 1980’s.

A change in the Marion County family court system led the court to transfer Child Advocates’ contract to the city of Indianapolis’ Office of Public Health and Safety, or OPHS, in 2019. The office recently commissioned an outside audit of Child Advocates which found issues with record-keeping and invoicing, leading OPHS to move its contract to a new non-profit, Kids’ Voice of Indiana, as of May 1.

“Our goal has always been that there would be minimal disruption and hopefully none,” Kids’ Voice of Indiana CEO Lindsay Scott said.

Kids’ Voice of Indiana, which already provides some GAL services in family court, had planned to subcontract with Child Advocates, but this week the two sides reached an impasse and did not agree to a contract.

“We had proposed a period of stability for a few months where we would keep our employees and we would kind of just learn from one another but that was not the route they wanted to go,” said Paul Jefferson, outside counsel for Child Advocates.

Former juvenile judge James Payne expressed concern Friday that the change in providers would impact services to children.

“Abused and neglected children deserve better than what they will be getting on May 1st,” Payne said, noting that the system is complicated and that the city had approached Kids’ Voice of Indiana, the smaller of the two non-profits, just two months before the end of its contract with Child Advocates.

Scott acknowledged that Kids’ Voice will need to add staff and volunteers to keep up with caseloads, which have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but said she did not forsee any disruption of services.

The non-profit will also need to obtain a state certification in order to keep state funding in place. Scott said that certification is currently pending with the Indiana Supreme Court and will not impact the ability of the courts to appoint advocates.

“Our agency had many plans in place, whether that meant a subcontract or not, so that we would be ready to start on May 1st ,” Scott said.

Jefferson said Child Advocates would continue to provide other services in Marion County.

“We wish Kids’ Voice all the success in the world because what they’re doing is obviously, we think, a very important service, a very important need,” Jefferson said. “Any way we can help do that and still meet the obligations of the organization, we obviously will.”

OPHS sent the following statement to FOX59:

Yesterday morning, Child Advocates communicated its final refusal of an offer from Kids’ Voice of Indiana to provide GAL/CASA services as a subcontractor to Kids’ Voice. Throughout this process, our priority has been, and remains, clear: the children impacted by the critical work GAL/CASA services provide. OPHS is prepared to ensure minimal disruption to these services as we approach the effective date of the new contract. 

Caroline Ellert, OPHS Spokeperson

Marion County Superior Court sent the following statement:

Kids’ Voice has provided guardians ad litem to the Marion Superior and Circuit Court since 1994. As the Court embarks on a new innovative Family Division, the Court looks forward to a new chapter of increased GAL/CASA services provided by Kids’ Voice in Marion County.

We are aware that Kids’ Voice is working with the Indiana Office of Court Services on the certification process, and we are assisting in any way that we can with that process. The certification designation does not signify an organization’s ability to perform services; it simply allows the County to receive state funding.

Emily VanOsdol, Marion Superior Court Administrator

Scott said her organization is actively hiring and recruiting volunteers and will allow Child Advocates’ volunteers to continue on their current cases as well as future cases. For more information about volunteering as a child advocate, go to the link here.

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