The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), originally enacted in 1974, establishes national definitions regarding child abuse and neglect and assigns certain responsibilities to the federal government, particularly relating to data collection and technical assistance. It also authorizes funding to public agencies and nonprofit organizations that undertake activities to prevent, assess, investigate, prosecute, and treat child abuse and neglect.
CAPTA has been amended several times and was last reauthorized in 2010. While that reauthorization expired in 2015, Congress has continued to fund CAPTA programs without reauthorization.
Key Court Appointed Special Advocate Provision in CAPTA
Since 1996, CAPTA has required states applying for funding under the Act to submit an assurance in the form of a certification by the governor that the state’s child welfare system incorporates certain components, including a Guardian ad Litem for children and youth in dependency cases. Namely, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. sec. 5106a(b)(2)(B)(xiii), the state must assure that it:
“has in effect and is enforcing a state law, or has in effect and is operating a statewide program, relating to child abuse and neglect that includes […] provisions and procedures requiring that in every case involving a victim of child abuse or neglect which results in a judicial proceeding, a guardian ad litem, who has received training appropriate to the role, including training in early childhood, child, and adolescent development, and who may be an attorney or a court appointed special advocate who has received training appropriate to that role (or both), shall be appointed to represent the child in such proceedings.”
The statute sets forth two responsibilities for the GAL: “(I) to obtain first-hand, a clear understanding of the situation and needs of the child; and (II) to make recommendations to the court concerning the best interests of the child”.
Under this provision, a state can only access CAPTA funding if “every case involving a victim of child abuse or neglect which results in a judicial proceeding” has either a CASA/GAL volunteer or attorney advocating for the child’s best interest.
National CASA/GAL’s Stance on Child Representation
Children who have experienced abuse or neglect are among the most vulnerable populations in the United States. To improve outcomes for these children and their families, the National CASA/GAL Association supports court systems that include CASA/GAL volunteers and attorneys operating in accordance with each state’s laws. Strong, cohesive partnerships with all professionals and service providers in the courtroom are essential to ensuring each child’s safety, timely permanency, and well-being. America’s most vulnerable children deserve comprehensive representation and all the resources possible to help them heal and thrive.
Why the CAPTA Provision Matters
- Children and youth in abuse and neglect proceedings are especially vulnerable and can feel forgotten or not heard. They need an advocate who has first-hand knowledge of their situation and needs.
- Judges depend on the first-hand reports provided by the CASA/GAL advocate to make well-informed decisions for the children and youth and their families, including placement, permanency, and resources. CASA/GAL volunteers spend hours getting to know the child and family and, in the interest of addressing those needs, share information with the court while following laws and standards regarding confidentiality. Meanwhile, attorneys representing children or parents have duties of confidentiality which limit the information they can share with the court.
- CASA/GAL volunteers serve children and youth one-on-one and can dedicate the time to get to know the children and their families and their needs. Courts trust the quality of the advocacy provided by CASA/GAL volunteers because they know that CASA/GAL programs screen, train, and supervise the CASA/GAL volunteers consistent with national standards and state statutes and court rules.
- An amendment to CAPTA removing CASA/GAL volunteers as eligible GAL best-interest advocates might diminish the role of CASA/GAL volunteers, limiting the advocacy they could provide and their stature in the court room.
To maintain our current level of service to children, it is imperative that the provision allowing the CAPTA GAL to be either an attorney or a court-appointed special advocate be retained.
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