CHARLESTON — Relying on the experience of some of the delegates in the room, the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday amended the guardian ad litem language in the foster care reform bill being considered in the West Virginia Legislature.
Dels. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, and Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, both attorneys, used their firsthand knowledge of the child welfare court system to tweak the provisions added to House Bill 4092 last week by the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
The bill now requires that guardians ad litem — the court-appointed representation for children in abuse and neglect cases — explain why they did not interview those who they may have been requested to speak with for their report to the judge.
Steele said there have been times when he has been with a client in a case who has suggested to the guardian ad litem they speak with a close neighbor or someone else with knowledge of the situation, but when the report is given at the dispositional hearing, the person was never interviewed. Sometimes, he said, the child and foster family aren’t even interviewed — a complaint of foster families in a recent survey.
However, the guardians ad litem are not permitted to testify about the reports, so no one knows the reasoning behind why they didn’t visit the foster family or others who may be close to the case.
“Maybe the judge says he understands why they didn’t interview them or he decides he can’t proceed without the information,” Steele said. “These are real delicate situations. It’s a young person’s complete future. The court needs to be in the position to know what did and did not happen.”
The committee also amended the law to require the judge submit findings as to why a case could move forward without a guardian ad litem report, a practice already permitted in state law.
Fast said there needs to be a paper trail so an appellate court could see the judge’s reasoning.
“In talking with others, sometimes you get in and meet with the GAL and you’re hit with a lot of surprises, or it’s not all there in the report but the judge wants to move forward,” Fast said. “I think there needs to be some judicial scrutiny as to why that report is not there.”
Fast also moved to amend the bill so the report is no longer required to be given to foster parents. He said foster parents are not parties in the case.
“Any GAL worth its weight in salt is going to do their job well,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for it to go to persons who are not parties in the case.”
Fast agreed to change his amendment so it is permissible for foster parents to receive the ad litem report, but it is no longer required.
The bill now makes one more stop in the Finance Committee before it hits the House floor.