New law to create independent agency for complaints follows InvestigateWest reporting on child abuse and neglect allegations

By Kyle Pfannenstiel, Idaho Capital Sun, March 26, 2024

Idaho will have a watchdog state government agency to hear complaints about children’s services in foster care, residential treatment facilities and protective supervision. 

Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed Senate Bill 1380 into law Monday. The bill will create a new office of health and social services ombudsman, which will be a self-governing agency, independent of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the Idaho Legislature. 

Little wrote, in a letter to lawmakers, that he believes the agency “will further public confidence and help identify productive and innovative ideas by which Idaho can better support children and those serving critical roles in foster care and child protection.”

Under the bill, a child receiving services or their biological or legal representative could file a complaint with the new ombudsman. The ombudsman will accept complaints about services or an agency’s behavior that violate state rule, law or policy, as well as services that were imposed without adequate reason or were based on irrelevant, immaterial or erroneous grounds. 

InvestigateWest reporting recently uncovered allegations of child abuse and neglect at state-licensed facilities in Idaho. The Legislature this year also ordered an investigation into oversight of Idaho’s youth treatment homes, InvestigateWest reported.

The law creating the ombudsman’s office takes effect July 1, the first day of the state’s new fiscal year. 

Little suggested the Legislature consider expanding the roles of that office to other government oversight, such as whether officials comply with laws governing ethics, and public records and open meetings. 

“Legal conflicts arise when one executive office attempts to investigate another for advice the former rendered to the latter. Such conflicts are proven to be counterproductive and expensive for Idaho’s taxpayers,” Little wrote. “I believe public trust in government is best maintained when the roles of general counsel and inspector general are served by two distinct offices of state government.”

Little also called on the Legislature to consider changing state law to let the ombudsman agency have legal representation from outside the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Idaho Legislature and state agencies, like the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. 

“Dual representation by the same legal office conflicts with the legislative mandate for independence and will impair the ombudsman’s authority to ‘pursue all necessary action, including legal action, to protect the child’s welfare and rights,’” Little wrote.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Idaho Gov. Brad Little gives his State of the State speech in the House chambers of the State Capitol building on Jan. 9, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

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