What makes a professional Guardian ad Litem?

The State’s Guardian Ad Litem Program Administrator has stated that she prefers to “professionalize” the Guardian ad Litem role vs leveraging a both paid staff and trained volunteers. Fortunately, the current MN GAL Board does not agree and they voted on January 16, 2024 not let program management end the volunteer GAL program.

I believe it is necessary to address management’s desire to “professionalize” the program. I will not list the reasons for which this was being attempted nor the arguments against it here but I will try to clarify the muddy water of “professionalism” so we might see clearly what “professional” means for Guardian ad Litem child advocates in the Child Protection System.

It’s important to point out that both CASA volunteer GALs and Paid Staff are trained the same and expected to meet the same “professional” standards.

The first definition of the word “professional” (Oxford dictionary): “the competence or skill expected of a professional”.

Drilling down into defining “competence” and “skill” as it applies to working with abused children that have been removed from their birth homes and placed in Child Protective Services will help us see more clearly what competence and what skill are most needed in this work.

I argue that the skill needed to work with children traumatized by abuse and removal from their home should include some life experience with the thing you will be working with.

Significant loss, fear, alienation, self-hate and self-harm are familiar to many people that have worked with at risk children in education, social work, law enforcement, health care and foster care.

By definition, this definition gives importance (in a weighted averages comparison) to people that have these experiences.

It’s an advantage to have come from a work life or home life where abuse and trauma have been witnessed. While not a pleasant metaphor, this work is similar to entering a field where there is surgery and blood. If you have been in these fields you know what it is you are working with and you have an advantage over someone not familiar with the depth and scope of trauma in the children you are working with.

This article in the Star Tribune explains that corrections officers, human services technicians and staff in state veterans homes will not need four year college degrees under Governor Walz executive order.

The order came because of the severe shortage of teachers, social workers, law enforcement officers and so many other public facing jobs in this economy. These shortages are not expected to diminish over the coming decades. The fight for qualified employees is going to continue.

Today, Governor Walz’s action does not apply to teachers, social workers, guardians ad Litem or police officers. But it may in the future.

There are simply not enough qualified people to fill these critical positions. Projections in five years look worse. Today we have budget surplus and program dollars for hiring. What happens when budget shortfalls return and caseloads / workloads climb to fill the gaps as they always do?

Today, GAL program management has used every means necessary to eliminate 10,000 qualified community Court Appointed Special Advocates that speak for  abused and neglected children caught up in the Child Protection System. Management has chosen efficiency over effectiveness in the lives of abused and neglected children that truly need more help than they are getting.

This study (read at least pages 10-15) clearly articulates how 200 children died at the hands of their parents while in Child Protection (over a recent eight year period). Many of these children were two and three years old. They are helpless beings without community involvement.

Again, we are grateful that the current MN GAL Board has redirected management and, for now, has stopped management from putting an end to the volunteer program. 

The study linked above indicates that CPS can’t currently keep Minnesota’s abused children safe or even alive.

If program management had been allowed to dismantle the forty year old CASA volunteer Guardian ad Litem program it would have removed retired teachers, doctors, social workers and tons of qualified, committed people with passion and time to spend with our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Managements arguments have been disingenuous. They have picked the absolute worst time to eliminate qualified workers. New hires take years to acclimate to the difficult work of child protection. Their skill levels are low and their turnover rates are high. 200 volunteer CASAs have been waiting for two years to go to work but not allowed to.

If management is allowed to end the program Minnesota will be one of 2 states to NOT have a CASA organization (950 total in the nation) and the only state to ever end a volunteer program.

Please share this with your friends and state rep – add a note about why you think it important.

Children are at a greater risk than they have ever been.

Forward this to your State Rep (find them here)

with a note from you

to interrupt the trauma and torture of children.

Get the backstory in this ongoing and not so public discourse here.

Read the State Program Audit and related documents below;

If the State is forced to broaden the executive order due to a shrinking labor pool and future budget shortage, this troubled Child Protection System will be shaken to its core. Today, there are no outcomes based measurements for the children we serve. No one knows key performance indicators of mental health, school performance or child wellbeing. There has never been anything like transparency in CPS. HIPPA laws were never meant to keep data hidden from the public.

Working with abused children that have been beaten, starved and raped to the extent that a judge removes them from the home, is harder than most people understand.

People dealing with traumatized children that have been removed by the court need to comprehend the biological and behavior elements that their caseload children are living with. It’s helpful if you come from a field that has dealt with it before.

They know that the mental health needs of badly damaged children have been underserved for decades. People working with traumatized children need more life experience and classroom training than 30 hours annually to comprehend the multitude of issues each child and family are dealing with. Social Services personnel are chartered not only to keep these children safe from early tortured death but help them heal to give them a chance to lead a productive life.

This requires an understanding of what mental health is and what impacts it. To pick people off the street and commission them to oversee the most mentally damaged and vulnerable children in our community will be a huge mistake that will cost our community for decades to come. Finally, what management should consider in this equation, is the value of the pool of qualified active volunteers that have years of experience (the way it has been done for almost forty years) as future staff.


This post by former CASA volunteer guardian ad litem Mike Tikkanen