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Court: counties responsible for GAL, CASA fees

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In a significant opinion about the funding of child welfare cases, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today that any guardian ad litem or Child Appointed Special Advocate fees associated with a child in need of services case must be paid by the county and not the state agency that lawmakers gave more oversight power to in the past year.

The unanimous ruling came in a consolidated appeal of In the Matters of N.S. and J.M.: Indiana Department of Child Services v. T.S. and S.B., and C.L., and B.M., No. 32A05-0902-JV-78. The case involves two separate CHINS cases ruled on earlier this year in Hendricks Circuit Court. Judge J.V. Boles, in separate decisions, determined both children were considered CHINS, appointed a GAL for each, and then ordered the state agency to pay a preliminary GAL fee of $300 in each case. The DCS appealed, and the cases were consolidated on appeal because both involved a similar question of law.

In its 13-page decision, the three-judge panel examined the 2008-passed changes in H.E.A. 1001 for how child welfare and juvenile justice cases are funded - mainly shifting the financial burdens from the local to state level in exchange for more influence by the DCS in recommending services. Under HEA 1001, if a trial court disregards a DCS recommendation and orders services or placements other than what's recommended, then the county fiscal body may become responsible for funding ordered by the local judge. However, the new statutory provisions do not specifically detail whether the state or country must pay fees related to GALs or CASAs - particularly in a case such as this where the appointments were uncontested.

The panel found nothing in Indiana Code Section 31-40-3-2 appears to contemplate the possibility that DCS should bear the burden of paying those fees, and the General Assembly didn't amend that statute to shift those costs. The panel also noted that Indiana Code Section 33-24-6-4 provides for optional state matching funds for GAL and CASA programs, indicating intent for the counties to bear the burden of costs ordered.

The court declined to decide whether those GAL or CASA services must be approved or recommended by the DCS before the state pays anything under IC Section 31-40-1-2 because the previous findings resolve the issues in this case.

"In addition, we recognize the distinct roles of each of our three branches of government and thus leave to the legislative branch the question of whether, in light of the trend toward State funding of child welfare costs, the costs associated with GALs and CASAs should be shifted to the State," the court wrote. "Under our current statutory scheme, however, it is clear that the burden of paying for services rendered by GALs or CASAs should be attributed to and paid for by the county."

The trial judgment is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

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