Kids’ Voice of Indiana, a nonprofit serving children and families, will take over the training and operation of the court-appointed special advocate program in Marion County courts May 1 after the city of Indianapolis switched the contract for the services from Child Advocates.
Already Kids’ Voice provides Guardian ad Litems for the family courts in Marion County and, with the new contract, will coordinate the Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers who are assigned to help the youngsters designated as children in need of services in juvenile court.
Lindsay Scott, president and CEO of Kids’ Voice, said her agency was approached by the city about running the CASA program. The nonprofit decided to explore the matter because it has a history of working with CASA volunteers dating back to its founding in 1982, and it was concerned who would be selected to run the program if the city did not stay with Child Advocates.
Scott emphasized operating the CASA program aligns with the mission of Kids’ Voice.
“This is what we do,” she said. “We advocate for kids.”
Child Advocates did not respond to requests for comment by IL deadline.
Marion Superior Court issued a statement 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.
In a press release form Kids’ Voice, Scott echoed the courts’ and city’s concern for keeping children a priority during the transition.
“We are committed to a collaborative process with Child Advocates and other important stakeholders to advocate for and protect the children in the child welfare system in Marion County,” Scott said. “We value Child Advocates’ experience in doing this work for over 35 years and look forward to a team effort to combine the expertise of both agencies in this endeavor. Above all, we are committed to excellent advocacy for the children in our community that need it most.”
Scott acknowledged the change to the CASA program is coming at a time when Marion County courts are dramatically revamping the family division. The juvenile and probate cases will be folded into the family courts and a one-judge, one-family system will be established so that the families will not have multiple judges presiding over their different legal issues.
Also, she conceded there are “a lot of feelings” about shifting of the CASA program from Child Advocates. But she sees an opening being created for all the stakeholders to sit at the same table and help guide the changes taking place.
“The opportunity is being presented to all of us,” Scott said. “It says work together, work innovatively and see what we can do.”
Kids’ Voice was notified a few days ago that it had been awarded the contract. Many details have to be worked out, but Scott said her agency will be connecting with Child Advocates to make a smooth transition.
“Everyone’s shared goal is that the children in Marion County don’t experience any interruption in services,” Scott said. “That is my number one goal.”