October 16, 2023 Dear Members of the Minnesota Guardian ad litem Board:
My name is Rich Gehrman and I am addressing you today as a person with a background in child welfare and also in managing human services programs. Some of you may know me as the Executive Director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota. I am no longer in that position so I am speaking today as a private citizen and my remarks do not necessarily reflect the position of the current Executive Director of Safe Passage or its Board of Directors.
Let me first establish my qualifications for speaking to this issue. I have been in child advocacy roles for many years and am familiar with the functions of Guardians ad litem and with CASA volunteers, as well as the broader child welfare environment involving courts, child protection workers, prosecutors, and related sectors.
Specifically regarding this undertaking, I have been the chief finance and administrative officer for the county human service agency in Westchester County New York and the state agency in Maryland. I was also the Director of Finance for the City of St. Paul, and have consulted with many counties, states, think tanks and nonprofits. In these capacities I have either personally conducted or supervised numerous financial analyses, including many cost-benefit or Return on Investment projects. So I am quite familiar with the kind of work that the Management Analysis and Development (MAD) division has done regarding the voluntary Guardian ad litem program, known as CASA or Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Let me begin by saying that the choice that this board is facing is a momentous one. Once a decision is made to end CASA, it almost certainly cannot be reversed. While I understand that the board has considered this issue for some time and may wish to make a decision and move on to other work, I am concerned that a judgment by the board to end CASA could be the beginning of a second phase of this process. While this process may pass relatively unnoticed, there is also the potential that the board will have to manage a negative reaction from CASA’s supporters, which include numerous alumni, current and former judges, the public, and legislators, many of whom may not have been made sufficiently aware of this major impending change. There is also the possibility this issue will attract new attention from the media.
The analysis by MAD is not, in my view, sufficiently compelling in some important respects to support the board in managing this risk. While I understand from a previous board meeting I attended as well as a legislative hearing on the topic that the board has been guided in this deliberation by staff, this decision is yours alone, and you alone will be accountable for what happens in the future as a result.
For that reason I urge you to consider whether you have the essential information needed to make this determination. I would like to offer several points for your consideration in this regard.
The first and most obvious question is why does every other state except North Dakota have at least some CASA Guardians, an issue that the report does not address. If there were to be a negative reaction from some stakeholders the board would need to have a well-thought out response to this question. At that point it will not be persuasive to say that the MAD report did not cover this topic, or that this direction was recommended by management, since it is an assessment that the board is ultimately responsible to make. In this regard I suggest that the board pause to hear directly from key stakeholders such as judges, and from outside experts, including the national CASA leadership and other states.
As mentioned, I have personally done or supervised many cost benefit analyses for government agencies. One common mistake is for staff to include only hard costs that are accessible in existing reports or databases, and as a result miss or under-value benefits of a program. There are often ways to quantify even ‘soft’ benefits, but even if that is not attempted, they should be identified, evaluated qualitatively, and appropriately weighed in the balance. There are many substantial benefits that the CASA program contributes to the community which this report does not examine. Let me mention just two of them.
First, having independent citizens involved in this work increases the transparency and accountability of the program, and hence the trust and confidence of stakeholders, including particularly the public and elected officials. If the board shuts down CASA, the Guardian ad litem program will become another agency that is opaque to citizens. In my experience there are already significant institutional pressures for Guardians to concur with the recommendations of prosecutors and social workers, which is in tension with their duty to be an independent voice for children. Making the program a closed system would exacerbate this tendency.
Secondly, volunteer Guardians are a valuable asset to the GAL program and to the child welfare system in general. CASA Guardians understand a great deal about child welfare. They educate their friends and neighbors, and help raise public awareness about the circumstances that vulnerable children face. They have been among the most effective advocates for the GAL program, including with elected officials. On more than one occasion my former organization collaborated with CASA to advocate on behalf of the GAL program at the legislature, as well as for more resources for the child welfare system overall. At times CASA Guardians were more than half of our volunteer base. They were the most credible and effective advocates with legislators we had because they had relevant training and personal experience to share.
I also had questions or concerns about parts of the quantitative analysis in the report. I found the discussion regarding “activities” to be insufficiently explained. For example, on the one hand the report says that volunteers performed as well as or better than paid employees in a number of areas. Yet the analysis states that employees had seven times as many case activities as volunteers. In my experience, if CASA volunteers are similar in most performance measures, it is unlikely that an overall measure of activity would be orders of magnitude better for employees.
Also regarding these activities metrics, I understand that CASA Guardians did not have access to the same database as employees, and the report notes that some volunteers felt that being criticized for their submissions of data was being used as a way to push them out of the program. I would like to have seen a more thorough description of what the differences are between CASA volunteers’ access to the system and how that may have affected their ability to meet the information submission requirements.
I also had questions about the analysis of the costs of a CASA Guardian. The chart on page 42 of the MAD report uses the same supervisory cost per volunteer as for employees. Given that volunteers carry only two or three cases each on average, the cost of supervising a volunteer guardian cannot be the same as an employee, even if volunteers require somewhat more supervisory support. Although the analysis indicates that the total program costs of a volunteer Guardian are only 6% of a paid Guardian, it still overstates the costs, an error that is carried over to the cost per case analysis on the following page.
There were some particularly troublesome findings regarding volunteer GAL’s, such as that they have greater difficulty learning the role, as well as difficulties with boundaries and in building relationships with families. The report indicates that this was said by several coordinators, but also that it was relatively rare, and that coordinators perceive the differences between Guardians as being related primarily to their level of experience rather than whether they are volunteers or employees. It is also unclear to me why these issues with volunteers cannot be addressed by the supervisor, as would be the case with an employee. Overall these issues seem to be ones that could be addressed by training and supervision, and are not described as being so pervasive that they constitute sufficient reason to discontinue the entire program. Relatedly, I thought the justification for the finding that volunteer Guardians pose more substantial risks was not well explained or documented.
The report does document in some detail the difficulties that management has in recruiting a more diverse group of Guardians. I understand that the CASA program has a waiting list of 200 people who have expressed interest in becoming a volunteer Guardian, 40 of whom are BIPOC. Rather than ending the CASA program because it is not sufficiently diverse, would it not make more sense to join forces to strengthen the diversity of the Guardian pool with both paid and volunteer Guardians?
On that point, the CASA program is currently headed by an Executive Director with management experience at a high level in a large corporation. This is a resource that the GAL program can use to help improve the overall recruitment and training, and to develop consistent quality across both volunteer and paid Guardians.
I noted that there is conflicting information about the current state of the Guardian program, particularly caseload sizes. The MAD report indicates that the GAL management has said that caseloads are manageable, yet it also alludes to significant difficulties for all guardians in getting reports done on time or having sufficient detail in reports to the court to enable them to make case recommendations. I note that the CASA Executive Director in his remarks to you has referenced a conversation with a judge who indicated that the program is in crisis. I also have had recent conversations with that judge and with a foster parent, both of whom mentioned problems due to large turnover in the program. Given these data points, it would seem that the board may wish to make sure it has an accurate understanding of turnover and caseloads.
In sum, this is a historic decision and one that I am concerned has significant risk for the GAL board and the program. As a result I would recommend that the board postpone final decision in order to: 1) get a more robust analysis of the benefits of the program, 2) consider in more depth why Minnesota would elect to be nearly alone among states in not having CASA volunteers, 3) gain a better understanding of the categories of activities used throughout this report, 4) obtain a thorough analysis of caseloads and turnover, 5) consult outside experts and stakeholders directly, and 6) in general consider whether there are ways for the state to team up with the CASA program to address some of the management issues that the program faces instead of taking the drastic action of ending it.
In the interim, I urge the board lift the embargo on training new CASA volunteers so that the program isn’t effectively closed down anyway through attrition while these issues are being considered.
Thank you for the opportunity to be heard. Rich Gehrman