Indianapolis-based Child Advocates is asking the city of Indianapolis to delay plans to switch providers in its court appointed special advocates program until the end of year, citing questions about the transition, the ability of the new provider to handle the work and concerns over the risk to children.
On April 1, the Indianapolis Office of Public Health and Safety tapped Kids’ Voice of Indiana to provide and oversee court-appointed special advocates and guardians for youngsters found to be children-in-need-of-services in Marion Superior juvenile court. The contract begins May 1.
Child Advocates had been awarded the contracts to run the program since 1982.
Cynthia Booth, CEO of Child Advocates, said she had no idea the city was looking to change providers and is not sure why officials picked Kids’ Voice. She noted the switch was completed without a request for proposals or asking for public input.
“We’re aghast at this,” Booth said of the city switching to Kids’ Voice. “I don’t know why this needs to be so rushed.”
“We are a certified program,” Booth said of Child Advocates, which is certified by the National GAL/CASA Association and the Indiana State Office of GAL/CASA. Kids’ Voice is not, she said. “They are a very small program. We are not.”
According to data compiled by Booth, Child Advocates had 458 volunteers and 85 staff members in 2019 serving 6,985 children. Comparatively, Kids’ Voice had 260 volunteers and eight staff members, according to the organization’s 2017-2018 annual report, and was serving 467 children.
Also, the same data show Child Advocates had a budget of $7.2 million and was able to provide its services at a cost per child of $1,031. Kids’ Voice had an annual budget of $950,000 and a cost per child of $1,714.
In a press release, Child Advocates said it follows the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Model Court Best Practices. The organization has also won both a city and national award for diversity in staffing and has received national and local recognition for its race equity programming to prevent biases in treatment of Black children who are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system.
Booth and Child Advocates are concerned the transition to Kids’ Voice will put youths in the child welfare system at risk. The agency has asked that its contract be extended through the end of 2021 while the city conducts “an open and transparent (request for proposal) process.”
Lindsay Scott, president and CEO of Kids’ Voice, told Indiana Lawyer her organization did not actively seek the CASA contract. After being approached by the city, Kids’ Voice decided to explore the possibility because it did not want the program to fall to a not-for-profit with no experience in child welfare.
However, Booth is not confident Kids’ Voice has the experience and resources to take over the program in less than 30 days. She said when the leaders of the two agencies met April 4 to talk about the potential for Child Advocates to become a subcontractor of Kids’ Voice, the latter organization had no terms to discuss and, in fact, had not signed the contract with the city.
Booth also questioned whether Child Advocates as a certified CASA program could be a subcontractor to Kids’ Voice, which is not certified.
Since Child Advocates lost the contract, staff and volunteers have been leaving the organization, according to Booth. She is concerned children could be unprotected, particularly during the time when Marion County is folding the juvenile courts into the new family court division and preparing to relocate to the new Community Justice Center.
“This is another change for the children,” Booth said. “(The city) is bringing in people how have not done CHINS cases before. I don’t know why this is happening.”
Marion Superior Court issued a statement last week explaining the CASA services contract and its management was transferred to the Office of Public Health and Safety in late 2019 under the advice that having an outside department oversee the contract would be more appropriate. OPHS regularly updated the court of its review and management decisions regarding the contract, which expires April 30.
“The Court’s primary focus is on ensuring that the youth in our community are well served and represented,” the statement said. “The Court is working hard to ensure a smooth transition.”
Caroline Ellert, spokesperson for the OPHS, said after an external organization conducted an assessment of the costs the city incurred for the services provided by Child Advocates, the Office of Public Health and Safety, “with the full knowledge and support from the Marion Superior Court,” decided to sign a new contract with Kids’ Voice of Indiana. As part of the new agreement, Kids’ Voice will be allowed to subcontract with Child Advocates.
“In making this decision, the welfare of the children receiving these vital services was, and remains, first priority,” Ellert said. “OPHS is confident that this arrangement will limit disruption to both employees of Child Advocates and clients, allowing for continued advocacy and protection for those who need it most.”
According to Scott, the amount the city will pay Kids’ Voice is still being negotiated.
The last contract the city signed with Child Advocates was set to expire Dec. 31, 2020, OPHS confirmed. However, it was extended to April 30, 2021 and the total amount for all of 2020 and the first four months of this year was increased to a total of $8.8 million.