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City switches child advocates after former service provider goes $3 million over budget

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Posted at 7:38 PM, May 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 19:43:22-04

INDIANAPOLIS — For 39 years, the non-profit group Child Advocates provided the trained adults in Marion County courtrooms who looked out for the interests of children during emotional divorce or child welfare hearings.

That ended Monday.

After a year in which Child Advocates went about $3 million over budget, city officials on Friday hired another non-profit, Kids’ Voice of Indiana, to provide Court Appointed Special Advocates and guardians ad litem to advocate on behalf of children in cases involving abuse, neglect, divorce or termination of parental rights.

Caroline Ellert, a spokesperson for the Indianapolis Office of Public Health and Safety, said the city is working to make sure few children are impacted by the move.

“We believe that this arrangement with Kids’ Voice is a long-term and sustainable solution to ensure this critical work continues,” Ellert said.

Sometimes in court, what’s best for a child may not be in the best interest of the adults in that child’s life, said Amy Jones, the presiding judge for the Marion Superior Courts. Jones said the advocates were working in the family courts under the new contractor on Monday morning.

Some of the advocates are paid but most volunteer.

There are about 500 volunteer advocates in Marion County, said Kathryn Dolan, a spokesperson for the Indiana Supreme Court. Dolan said the Supreme Court is overseeing efforts to certify Kids' Voice, which will make the group eligible to receive grant funding for its work.

Most of the volunteers who used to work for Child Advocates now work for Kids' Voice. They will continue helping the same children they've been assigned to all along, Kids’ Voice Chief Executive Officer Lindsay Scott told WRTV in an email.

“Those volunteers will be assigned to the same GAL (guardian ad litem) to provide additional reassurance to children who are participating in the court system,” Scott said. “(We) are able to provide more than 3,500 children with a familiar face in court.”

Child Advocates had provided these services in Marion County since 1982. Two weeks ago, the organization pulled itself out of talks that would have allowed it to continue providing advocates to the courts as a subcontractor working under Kids' First.

In its last contract, the city agreed to pay Child Advocates $5.4 million in 2019. That contract was renegotiated twice last year, adding nearly $3 million to the total bill, Office of Public Health and Safety spokesperson Caroline Ellert said in an email.

In January, an outside audit by Crowe LLP determined that Child Advocates could not provide receipts and documents to fully justify its expenses and cost calculations.

Officials with Child Advocates challenged the accuracy of the audit in a six-page response. Paul Jefferson, an attorney and spokesperson for Child Advocates, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The 2021 contract, signed Friday, will pay $5.4 million to Kids' Voice with the stipulation that the total cannot exceed $5.8 million over the next year unless both parties agree, Ellert said.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.