Remembering Truett Cathy, Exclusive 2010 Interview

Truett Cathy, 2006.
Truett Cathy, 2006.

Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, who died Monday at 93, founded group homes for disadvantaged children in 1987, the WinShape Homes.

In October 2010, he spoke to Chandra Thomas-Whitfield, who was then a JJIE reporter, about why he became involved with children.

The interview is below:

He is credited with creating the chicken sandwich and his company is known for the wildly popular “Eat Mor Chikin” ad campaign. When Truett Cathy, 89, isn’t busy with his duties helming the Chick-fil-A fast food chain empire he founded, he’s busy serving as “grandpa” to hundreds of needy children. Since 1987 his WinShape Homes have served more than 300 kids in three states. The Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges has presented him with the Martha Glaze Service Award for his efforts. JJIE’s Chandra Thomas sat down with Cathy (who donned a burgundy tie plastered with his signature Chik-fil-A cows) to discuss the honor named for a retired Clayton County judge and his lifelong commitment to serving children.

What initially inspired your work with children?

About 30 years ago, all three of my children were in college at one time and that left a huge void in my life. I had always been around children. I have been teaching Sunday school for 52 years. I had someone bring a boy to me. His parents had gotten divorced and we realized that this boy was brilliant and a quality individual. Within a few years he moved in with us and my kids adopted him like a brother. He’s a Harvard MBA now and has a key position with Chick-Fil-A. He’s married now with three beautiful children. That made me realize that there are a lot of children out there who are in need through no fault of their own. They’re just victims of circumstances. That’s how we started the WinShape Homes. We’re licensed as a group home. Now we have 11 of them in total (eight in Georgia, two in Tennessee and one in Alabama). We keep siblings together and have 10 to 12 children in each home. We don’t work with kids with severe behavioral problems. We’ve had about 50 of our foster kids graduate from college.  We give them a place to stay, feed them, clothe them, send them to private school, give them scholarships to college and buy them a car when they turn 18.

Most kids “age out” of the foster care system when they turn 18. What happens with WinShape Homes children?

When they turn 18 they have the option of whether they want to stay or not. Most of our kids stay through college or technical school until they can live on their own. We provide them with everything they need -- but natural parents. They all call me grandpa. I tell them that you don’t have to call me grandpa but those who do, get more! [Laughter.] We match every dollar for every dollar they earn working and put it toward the purchase of a car when they turn 18. One boy ended up saving $15,000 so we matched his money, which gave him $30,000 to purchase a car! [For the record, he didn't use all of the money for the car.]

I know you hire “house parents” to operate your homes. What role do you play with the kids?

We provide these kids with love. I used to rock the little ones to sleep at night and put them to bed. A lot of them would come back from college and ask me if I could still rock them to sleep. [Laughter.] Back when we started this we had 88 kids from DFACS (Department of Children and Family Services), now we just have two.  Now we take only private placements from families in need. We help a lot of grandparents who are having to raise their grandchildren and can't do it any longer because of their health or financial problems. We give [the kids] two weeks at camp every year and two weeks at my vacation home in New Smyrna Beach.  A lot of the kids have never seen the ocean before. I had one little girl come up to me and point [toward the ocean] and say grandpa, what’s over that hill over there? Next year we’re going to have 26 kids in college. This year we have 14. A lot of our kids go to Belmont, Samford and Auburn (universities). If they make the grades, we put them through school. Some of our kids have come back as house parents. They tell us that they want to give back what was given to them.

Why is working with disadvantaged kids so important to you?

A lot of the rewards that you get back, you can’t buy with dollars and cents. You see them grow up and it’s very rewarding. There are also disappointments when you see kids getting mixed up with the wrong crowd.  Some have gone astray and they come back to me and say grandpa, give me one more chance and I do. A lot of them come to us so anxious to make decisions and they don’t want anyone telling them what to do. I tell them to be patient; eventually you’ll be able to make the biggest decisions of your life. You’ll get to decide your life’s work and who your mate’s going to be. Some kids make bad choices, but I believe you can do anything you want to if you want to. You will reap the rewards later in life. We like to work with kids who want to he helped. We don’t work with kids with major behavioral problems. I can’t help them if they don’t want to help themselves. My time is better spent with those who do.

Some people feel that a person has to make a choice between being professionally successful and helping others. How do you manage to do both?

One time I was speaking to a group of kids. I asked them all what they wanted to be when they grow up. Some of them said teacher, doctor, fireman or nurse. Then one kid said he wanted to be a zookeeper and every kid after that said they wanted to be a zookeeper too. I said to them, that I wish I had a job where I could get paid to play with animals. [Laughter.] When I got to this one little six-year-old boy, he said “when I grow up I want to be just like you.” I picked him up and held him in my arms and I told him that was the highest honor I had ever received. That made me realize that I have to be careful of the things I say and how I live my life. Now he works for Chick-fil-A. A few weeks ago, I attended his wedding.

How have you managed to integrate a culture of giving into your company?

We give scholarships to the kids who work for us at Chick-fil-A. If they work 20 hours a week for two years, we give them $1,000 scholarships for school. So far we’ve given out 26,000 of those at a total of $26 million. Two-thirds of our (franchise) operators grew up in Chick-fil-A. We also work with another program called All-Pro Dad’s Day, where we encourage dads to take their kids out to eat once a month.  We believe that children need to have a strong relationship with their father.

Are they encouraged to go out to eat at Chick-fil-A or any restaurant?

Preferably Chick-fil-A, but they can go to McDonald’s on Sundays because we’re closed. [Laughter] Nowadays parents work all day and they’re not spending enough time with their children. Time is in the best need of a family. Parents need to love their children, but give them time too. Some times parents try to spend time with their kids and [the kids] don’t have much to say. If they keep spending time with eventually [the children] will start talking about what they want to talk about. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality time. Take them out to eat once a month.

What do you think is the root of these problems that you describe?

I got this [flier] that says 85 percent of children that go through juvenile court come from fatherless homes; 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes; and 85 percent of youth sitting in prisons grew up in fatherless homes.  I don’t know where they got those numbers from, but I do believe a father has a major impact on a child’s life. Nowadays they can’t have prayer in (public) schools; they took that out. They took the 10 Commandments out of the courthouse. Back when I was in third grade we were required to read a Bible verse every morning. Mine was Proverbs 22:1, “a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” One time a little boy was brought to my office and the woman said to him, tell him your favorite Bible verse. He stood at attention and said “a good name is rather to be chosen than A LOT OF MONEY!” [Laughter.]

Finally, how does it feel to be honored by the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges for your life’s work helping children?

As long as I don’t have to buy it; I’ll accept it. A lot of people come to you wanting to name things after you, but you have to give them some money to do it. If I don’t have to spend money, I’ll accept it. If somebody wants to honor me with no strings attached, that’s fine with me. I’ll accept any award given to me whether I deserve it or not!

Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta andAtlanta, People and Essence magazines.

Looking at the Odds for Illinois’ Youngest Offenders – and the Efforts to Arrest Recidivism

Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Chicago, Illinois.
Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Chicago, Illinois.

The number of youth who exit Illinois state detention centers and find themselves right back in one soon after has decreased in recent years. But the rate remains stubbornly high and is projected be above 40 percent in 2013.

It is true that the number of minors incarcerated across the nation has dropped. Here in Illinois the decline has been significant – upward of 36 percent since the early 2000s, but critics still say the justice system is broken, heavily skewed against minorities and failing to treat youth as even the United States Supreme Court has ruled they should be – as youth, not adults.

The Chicago Bureau is publishing the following project in hopes of answering some of the riddle as to why the rate was, is, and is expected to remain so high, looking at the factors that contribute to youth recidivism and what is being done to try to arrest it.

The project, reported by students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, examines ways Illinois is trying to lower the number of youth stuck in the cycle by providing alternatives to incarceration, helping them transition out of the system, and, in doing so, reducing costs. The project also examines what approaches work and which could, according to interviews with experts, officials, and community groups, be improved.

Chicago BureauThe reporting effort, presented in the following interactive production put together by the student authors, also looks at ways that independent organizations and their programs attempt to do the same, supporting the children within detention centers, preventing violence before it occurs, and offering transitional spaces for those emerging from a system some argue was built for a super-predator generation that never came to be.

Click to see the piece, titled, “Breaking the Cycle: Recidivism Rates in Illinois Youth Detention Centers.

Has One Georgia County’s ‘Virtual’ Alternative School Failed Troubled Students?

In an experiment lasting one school year, Clayton County, Ga. handed out laptops to its most challenged students and sent them home to learn in a new "virtual" school. As the school administrators prepare to update the school board, parents, teachers and others are convinced the experiment came at a high cost to many of the school district's most academically challenged students.

Listen to the complete report from 2011 Soros Justice Media Fellow Chandra Thomas-Whitfield. The story originally aired on Atlanta NPR affiliate WABE and was produced by WABE's Jim Burrus.


Alleged School Bullying Victim, Mom Speak Out On Georgia’s New Bullying Law

dekalb county school bullying policy 1


‘It Was Just Pretty Much Assault Every Day’: Alleged School Bullying Victim, Mom Speak Out On Georgia’s New Bullying Law.

Back to school season is in full swing and like so many other families around the country 13-year-old Alicyn and her mother Annise Mabry are busy keeping up with the demands of the school year.

However, instead of preparing to go to a local school, Ali takes classes at home. Instead of a classroom, she logs onto her laptop for online lessons. Instead of a teacher, her mom is her instructor.

“It’s a lot better, it’s a lot more fun and it really brings out a lot of the things I found enjoyable in school,” says Ali, decked out in a hot pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, rows of colorful plastic bracelets dangle from both of her arms.

She used to attend a public middle school near their Conyers, Ga. home just outside of Atlanta, but this year for 8th grade, she’s relying on the online Georgia Cyber Academy for her curriculum.

Georgia Cyber Academy 2
13-year-old Alicyn selects her course schedule for a new school year with the Georgia Cyber Academy, bully free.

Ali and her mother say excessive bullying from classmates on and off school grounds brought on Ali’s transition out of a traditional school.

“They were just really mean, the pushing, the shoving, hitting, slapping. Basically it was just pretty much assault every day,” she says. “With girls it was hair, my face, the way I dressed, the way I looked. The way I talked. Things that you really can’t help. I felt like that was my only reason for coming to school; just to be pushed around.”

Ali says as much as she loved learning, it was a struggle every day.

“I was a straight-A student, and I still was able to maintain straight A’s and still maintain on honor roll, but I was really considering dropping out.”

In addition to traditional bullying, texting and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, she claims, made her predicament worse.

“One could be in the classroom, two was Facebook, three was the bus and then four was the text messages,” she says, a dismayed look on her face. “And then it would go back to one. And it would get worse every time that you got back to one.”

Ali claims that she reported the incidents to her teachers and counselors and they did nothing. Her mom says ultimately it was too much for her daughter to take.

“Another suspension came when another student had been taunting her and hit her repeatedly with a book in the presence of a teacher and the teacher did nothing to intervene,” says Mabry of her daughter. “And Ali got mad, and she got tired of being hit, and she hit back. And that resulted into a two-day suspension.”

Ali says no adults intervened.

“They never did anything, never said anything; they never reported it, never even stepped in,” she says. “I was in and out of the counselors office frequently; more frequently than most students. I even had appointments there weekly.”

The incidents took their toll. At times she felt the bathroom was her only refuge.

home school front 1
After repeated episodes of bullying, both in and out of school, the Mabry's posted a sign on their front lawn: "This property under 24-hour surveillance."

“I went to the bathroom to eat lunch,” she says, a tinge of sadness in her voice. “Actually what I would do is I would take my binder to lunch. I would go to the bathroom. I would leave my binder in the bathroom intentionally. And then I would come back and do my work and everything else because I couldn’t sit at the lunch table because kids were so mean.”

She says the longer the bullying went on, the more she spiraled down.

“My self-esteem just dropped,” she says. “When I tried to get it up, it was like trying to throw paper in the air and expecting to catch it.”

Her mother says she knew something had to be done and she realized it was up to her to take action.

“When she got suspended the third time is when I finally said, ‘something has to change,’” says Mabry. “‘I can’t keep sending her through this.’ Ali was biting the skin off of her hands [because she was so stressed out].”

Decatur (Ga.) High School Counselor Ken Jackson says extreme examples like Ali describes are increasingly more common. He sees about two serious cases a year.

“Bullying by definition means that there's some kind of harm, it’s repeated and there is a power difference,” he says. “Somebody has social, physical power over someone else.”

He says students who don’t fit neatly into a student body’s established social structure are often targeted.

“I do think some of it is that [the bullies] feel that they have social permission to pick on some types of students,” he says. “Some kinds of student [behaviors] are seen as less acceptable. Likewise, students in these groups may feel the social stigma and not feel they can go anywhere for help.”

The number of bullying incidents that became more public in the past year was an impetus for changing the bullying law, he says. Still Jackson calls the new Georgia law a step in the right direction, but cautions that it is not a cure-all for the bullying issue.

“But we also know that simply establishing a law does not fully change a climate, a behavior in a person or a school,” says Jackson. “Setting a climate in which the expectation of what is good and appropriate behavior, what is inappropriate behavior responses to bullying is a necessary thing.”

Mabry feels not enough was done to protect her daughter. The former teacher resigned from her job as a dean at Devry University for medical reasons, then opted to home school her daughter for the past year. The Georgia Cyber Academy, she says, has been a great fit.

“And the beautiful thing about the cyber academy is that it falls under the charter school umbrella and it’s free for all Georgia students,” she says. “They ship your books. If your student does not have a computer they give you the computer. All of the supplies you need to go to school, they UPS to you. The only thing is it requires someone to be present for five hours a day to monitor the learning.”

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Alicyn and Annise Mabry 1


Jaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies


Jaheem Herrera. Photo credit: smokenmirrors_photo/photobucketJaheem Herrera’s Suicide Inspired Lawmakers To Beef Up Georgia’s School Bullying Policies, His Mother Says She’s Still Fighting For Justice

It’s been two years since Masika Bermudez lost her only son Jaheem Herrera, but the heart-wrenching emotions are still raw as if he died yesterday.

“It was like a bad dream, you know,” says the metro Atlanta mother, tears welling in her eyes. “You have your son there after school and in a blink of an eye, he’s not there anymore. The last thing I can remember about my son is with a big smile on his face when I was looking through his report card and then to see him lifeless afterwards. That’s the last image I have of my son every time I close my eyes.”

Jaheem was just 11-years-old when she found him hanged in a closet in their Decatur, Ga., apartment in April of 2009. She says her dark-haired cherub-faced son known for his friendly smile, was bullied to death.

“He got bullied in school, he’d been taunted, he’d been teased, he’d been called gay,” she says. “And that really bothered him, because he used to tell me about it, that he’s not gay. Why [did] they keep calling him gay? It caused a lot of symptoms [for him]. He’d been going through anxiety, depression and he didn’t want to eat. He couldn’t even sleep, you know. And it hurt him very bad.”

Bermudez claims she went to Jaheem’s school, Stone Mountain’s Dunaire Elementary, in an effort to get help for her son seven or eight times in the same school year that he died, but she insists the problem persisted.

DeKalb County Schools hired retired Fulton County Judge Thelma Moore to conduct an independent review of Bermudez’s claims. After a 30-day investigation, the judge concluded that Jaheem was teased at school, but not bullied, and that Bermudez never reported any problems to administrators or teachers. Judge Moore’s review included interviews with more than 50 witnesses from Jaheem’s school.

Bermudez says she has the sign-in sheets from the school office to prove her claims. She also alleges that before returning Jaheem’s personal items to her, administrators cut out the pages from his notebook journal where he detailed the bullying he experienced at school.

“Their response was there was no bullying, you know, and my response to that is that there was bullying,” she says. “My son used to tell me what used to happen to him. There was bullying. There was bullying and he got choked in the restroom. And I’m not, I can’t let that go.”

DeKalb County School System representatives would not comment on the findings that Jaheem was not bullied. Its Department of Student Relations Director Quentin Fretwell, instead, would only comment about its system-wide bullying awareness campaign now in its second year.

“We’re bringing awareness to the entire community; not only to kids, not only to training kids, training administrators and others; but also bringing awareness to the parents, bringing awareness to community leaders, staff members, bring awareness to society in general and saying we all have responsibility,” contends Fretwell.

Jaheem Herrera. Photo credit: gapride2008/photobucketBermudez says in May 2009 her former attorney Gerald Griggs filed a neglect complaint against the school system. She claims that she has yet to receive a direct response. She and her colleagues also asked DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James to look into her claims, but she has not gotten a response, she says. Bermudez and her friend Annette Davis Jackson are working on a formal response to the school system’s review, which they say is seriously flawed.

“[DeKalb County Schools] have what is considered disciplinary referrals,” notes Jackson. “The disciplinary referrals [forms that teachers and administrators complete], they don’t even have a check mark that says bullying. So you can just document it as a classroom disturbance and this is very key.”

Jackson says when Jaheem was suspended from school, it was written up as a “classroom disturbance.”

“It said classroom disturbance, only to find out that this was actually a [another student] choking [Jaheem] in the bathroom,” says Jackson. “So, his infraction was classroom disturbance. And no one chronicled it, or documented it as bullying. So you‘ve really got to look at DeKalb County and say, ‘you didn’t really train your teachers and you administrators to properly document bullying.’”

In her report, Judge Moore indicates that in the December 2008 incident that Jackson describes, Jaheem was suspended for fighting with a boy in the school’s bathroom. “Jaheem came in swinging,” Judge Moore has said. She claims the alleged fight was reported to school officials a month after it happened and that it was one of several scuffles in which Jaheem was involved. Bermudez says Jaheem’s best friend told her about what happened – not the school.

“I went to the school the following day and asked the principal about the choking incident, and her response was, ‘oh that incident,’” says Bermudez, “I said ‘what do you mean that incident, my son could've died.’ And she said he was getting suspended for it. I asked, ‘why, when he was the one who got choked,’ she said it was because he swung and fought back.”

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The Truth About Bullying

I’ve been a journalist a lot longer than I’d care to admit (a lot of people mistake me for younger), so admittedly after a while the articles I write sometimes begin to blur together. However, one thing’s for sure: the name Jaheem Herrera will forever remain etched in my mind. I remember clearly the first news reports of this metro Atlanta boy’s suicide in 2009. The images of his mother, heartbroken and sobbing splashed across my television screen aren’t easy to erase.

I was honored to be among the first people Masika Bermudez agreed to speak to after her son’s untimely death. While on assignment for People Magazine, I managed to interview her by phone days before her big The Oprah Winfrey Show interview, alongside the mother of Carl Hoover another alleged bullying victim. Once she returned to Atlanta, Bermudez graciously agreed to talk to me in person. Her grief loomed heavy and thick like a bloated storm cloud, as she walked me through her modest Decatur, Ga., apartment. Jaheem’s humanity became all too real as I stood in front of the bedroom closet where he tragically ended his own life – a short nine years in total. Flipping through his school journal book, I couldn’t help but notice that the pencil drawings scribbled throughout told the story of a boy steeped in pain.

No matter where you stand on Jaheem’s death – whether you think he was bullied to death like his mother asserts or that he took his own life for other
reasons as a DeKalb County Schools review suggests – the fact of the matter is that his story helped shine a spotlight on brutal bullying practices.

It also touched a lot of lives and inspired Georgia lawmakers two years ago to pass a law beefing up bullying policies in all the state’s schools. For that, we should all be grateful to this cherub-faced little boy who loved to practice flips on a patch of grass in front his home, tease his three sisters and imitate Michael Jackson’s dance moves before erupting into a fit of giggles.

I hope you, too, will find this multi-part series informative, engaging and enlightening. Coordinating this bullying series, a partnership between Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), has given me the opportunity to reconnect with Bermudez and her family and to educate myself even more about the lingering impact that bullying imposes on our community and society overall. For that too, I am truly grateful.

It is important to note that by definition, bullying always involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time. There must be an imbalance of power or strength; it’s not two equals experiencing conflict. Bullying is not just physical; it’s verbal and emotional as well. And the advent of social media, chat rooms and texting has expanded its reach. The effects of bullying can reverberate throughout a victim’s entire life. Bullying does not stop with childhood. The victim/aggressor patterns can last a lifetime. Bullies are everywhere – from home to the workplace.

Parents, educators and the community overall must also know that we all can prevent bullying before it ever happens, by promoting an environment of acceptance for other people’s differences at home and in the classroom. This means taking inventory of personal biases and taking steps not to pass them consciously and unconsciously on to children. This also means communicating clearly to them that no form of bullying will be tolerated. They should know in advance that the consequences would be stiff if it were ever discovered that he or she had been engaging in it, even as a passive bystander. Don’t make excuses for bullies -- make them accountable for their actions.

Stakeholders, Foster Kids Speak Out On Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite

Former foster children speak before Georgia House Judiciary Committee members.

The stakeholder organizations involved in Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite legislation are still providing input for the sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law.

Representatives from a diverse array of child welfare organizations shared their respective views on HB 641 at a standing-room only hearing before House Judiciary Committee members Thursday.

Overwhelming support for the effort – now roughly seven years in the making – was repeatedly voiced during the two-hour gathering at the state capitol, along with critical suggestions for improvement. The rewrite has received commitments from Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership to ready the measure for a vote in the 2012 legislative session.

“I think we’re finding out that a lot of people have concerns and they’re coming together to make this a good piece of legislation,” says committee chairman Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs), of the presentations made by organizations such as the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Court Appointed State Advocate (CASA) and Interfaith Children's Movement. “It was very encouraging to me. Hopefully by January we will have a bill that is ready to move forward.”

Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Emory University School of Law’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center says she was pleased with the outcome of the hearing and one held earlier in the week.

“I’m so pleased to see the excitement of the stakeholders,” says Widner, who has been instrumental in shaping the code rewrite legislation. “I look forward to working with the stakeholders on working out the few remaining issues. It’s a really good feeling to know we’re all here working together for the best interest of Georgia’s children.”

Voices for Georgia’s Children Advocacy Director Polly McKinney agrees.

“It does my heart good to see so many people coming together for the benefit of our children,” she says.

Some of the key concerns raised about the measure during the hearing include:

  • Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia – The provision requiring district attorneys (D.A.’s) statewide to actively participate in juvenile court proceedings, which is not currently required. “A large part of the state is uncovered as far as juvenile prosecutors,” says Kermit McManus, a D.A. over the Conasauga (Ga.) Judicial Court. “If this bill is passed as is, we will need more full-time juvenile prosecutors across the state. It really comes down to an issue of money.”
  • Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges – The provision requiring every child to be represented by a lawyer in court proceedings. “In light of these tough economic times, we’ve reached a point where we’ve cut all the fat and we’re down to the meat,” says Cherokee County Juvenile Court Judge John Sumner. “I’m concerned about this unfunded mandate. Our concern is that we’ll have lawyers in court but no [money leftover to fund] services for the kids and their families.”
  • Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice – The provision requiring juveniles be relegated to secure confinement on a 60-day cycle, as opposed to the current 30-day cycle. “I’m concerned about the fiscal impact,” says Commissioner Amy Howell. “We feel that there are other options or a combination of options that would better ease the child’s transition back into the community. For example, 30 days in secure confinement followed by 30 days of electronic monitoring or time in an evening reporting center.”
  • Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – Objections to the cost of funding the provision requiring that every child is represented by a lawyer in court proceedings. “We feel very strongly that every child should be represented by legal council in every delinquency case,” says Atlanta attorney Sandra Michaels. “If a child is facing any loss of freedom he or she should have an attorney no matter what the cost. We need to make sure that we’re not being penny wise and pound foolish.”
  • Association of County Commissioners The financial cost of implementing the proposed code statewide. “We suggest a thorough fiscal note be done on both the federal and state levels,” says Debra Nesbit, the organization’s associate legislative director for health and human services and public safety and the courts. “We think we deserve, and the taxpayers deserve, to see what the true cost is going to be.”

Highlights of the hearing were the closing comments made by three former foster children, who shared their very personal accounts of the perils they experienced first-hand on both the delinquency and deprivation sides of the state’s juvenile system.

Kendra Brownlee, 25, shared her treacherous ordeal of abuse and enduring 14 foster home placements in one calendar year, along with the delinquency she carried out as a result of her experience. Twenty-year-old Michael Powell, highlighted the critical need for sibling groups to be placed together. At one point, he says, he and his three brothers were apart for four straight years. Giovan Bazan, 22, of the Georgia Youth Empowerment Initiative non-profit, indicates that he was in the foster system from the age of 11 months until one year ago. He ultimately ended up in the custody of the state Department of Juvenile Justice for delinquency. His time in confinement was extended beyond the designated length by several years, he says, due to a lack of availability of suitable housing placement options.

All three agree that the code rewrite is a positive move for Georgia, but they also share concerns that the voice of the children affected often gets drowned out in the bureaucratic process.

“I was really frustrated by [the presenting organizations] focus on cost,” adds Bazan. “In light of these tough economic times it is to be expected, but if you have the best interest of the children at heart you will make whatever changes that need to be made no matter what.”

Powell and Brownlee share similar views.

“A lot of people don’t see the foster kid’s point of view; they only see a few random incidents,” Powell says. “They don’t know what’s really happening in the system. I’m glad I could be here today. I feel like I was making an impact for all of the foster kids still in the system.”

Adds Brownlee: “Foster kids need required mentors to help us navigate through life and to make better choices,” she contends. “How can we do better if no one is there to teach us? We need more wraparound services.”

Brownlee, calls the code rewrite “little steps” toward the need for “big change.”

The provisions in HB 641 would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. The process of rewriting the code actually began in 2004 as a proposal by the late Judge Robin Nash, then president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation. Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready for the public in 2008. In 2005, a state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. In 2006, the Brunswick-based Sapelo Foundation pulled together the JUSTGeorgia organizations, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Another version, known as SB 292, was introduced in the Georgia Senate in 2009, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. It was reintroduced in the last legislative session and nicknamed the “Children’s Code Rewrite” by local child advocacy groups.




Overloaded Public Defense Systems ‘Jeopardizing The Fairness of Our Justice System,’ Report Finds

The ongoing overburdening of U.S. public defense systems that serve millions of people annually is jeopardizing the fairness of our justice system and can result in more and longer prison sentences, concludes a recent report published by the Washington D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI).

According to the report, 73 percent of county-based public defender offices lacked the requisite number of attorneys to meet caseload standards, while 23 percent of these offices had less than half of the necessary attorneys to meet caseload standards. With an increasing overload of cases, lack of quality defense and a shortage of resources, the report argues, justice is not being served and the wellbeing of millions of people is at stake.

The findings in System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense echo the perspective shared by Jonathan Rapping, associate professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School and founder and CEO of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, which trains public defenders across the southeastern United States. Rapping tells, “we need to make sure that we create a campaign to view juvenile defenders as part of the larger public defender community; they’re just as important as their counterparts in the adult system. We need to stop viewing them as the stepchild of the public defender community; a marginalized group.”

Rapping contends that a shift in how juvenile public defenders are viewed in the system will help “juvenile judges, the legislative community and people with money” to better understand the issues in the system and begin funding opportunities to address them. Continues Rapping, “juvenile defenders need to be treated as an integral part of the process and should be provided with the support and resources that they deserve.”

The JPI report, released last month, finds that public defense systems across the country are overburdened, and asserts that busting-at-the-seams systems affect state and county budgets, the lives of those behind bars, the impact on their families, and the challenges of re-entering communities after serving time.

The study further looks at why dedicated public defenders do not have enough time to conduct thorough investigations, or meet with and provide quality representation for their clients – many of whom are low-income earners and people of color – contributing to disparities in the criminal justice system.

“More resources must be devoted to our nation’s public defense systems,"  says JPE Executive Director Tracy Velázquez. "When we fail to invest in quality defense, we pay greater costs down the road -– the costs of more incarceration, less public safety and fewer resources to build healthier communities. A lack of investments on the front end is creating significant costs in terms of incarceration and the lost contributions of those negatively affected; ultimately taxpayers bear the burden.”

She says people who, with appropriately resourced counsel, would not serve prison or jail time are disproportionately serving longer, unnecessary sentences. “For every $1 we spend on public defense, we are currently spending nearly $14 on corrections,” notes Velázquez. “We need to make smarter investments that will keep us safe and not empty our wallets.”

According the report:

  • National standards recommend that public defenders handle no more than 150 felony, 400 misdemeanor, 200 juvenile, 200 mental health, or 25 appeals per year.
  • Only 12 percent of county public defender offices with more than 5,000 cases per year had enough lawyers to meet caseload standards.
  • Nearly 60 percent of county-based public defender offices do not have caseload limits or the authority to refuse cases due to excessive caseloads.

The report includes the following recommendations:

  • Integrate a holistic and community-based approach to public defense. Community-based and holistic approaches to defense can help address the root causes of justice system involvement and prevent future involvement by treating the whole client. This can improve public safety, save money on corrections and have a positive impact on people and communities.
  • Collect better data and conduct more empirical evaluations on the impact of public defense systems on people, communities and criminal justice. Rigorous research and data collection on all justice policies and practices, but especially public defense, can help policymakers make informed decisions on policies that impact public defense.
  • Involve public defenders and affected communities in the policymaking process. As people who are directly involved with the laws and policies in a state or locality, defenders are in the unique position of being able to offer insight on the impact these policies have on people, on their law offices and on the justice system. As such, defenders should be actively engaged in the policymaking process for criminal justice policies as equal partners in the justice system.
  • Actively seek out the voices and perspectives of people who have used defender services to gain a better understanding of the realities of various systems and the implications for people. Nobody knows better the impact of criminal justice policies and practices than people who are involved in the justice system. Involving people directly impacted by the justice system will provide crucial information on making better and more effective and just policies.


Leadership Changes Announced For Governor’s Office for Children and Families

Georgia’s First Lady is expanding her service role to children in the state.

Sandra Deal, wife of Gov. Nathan Deal, has agreed to lead the advisory board for the Governor's Office for Children and Families (GOCF).

“It’s important for us to concentrate on our children and our families for the sake of our state,” Mrs. Deal said during the news conference led by the governor, along with House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

It was also announced that Katie Joe Ballard has been tapped to take on the role of GOCF’s Executive Director.

“I’m excited; I have some big shoes to fill,” said Ballard after the event today in the North Wing of the state capitol. “I look forward to working with the First Lady on carrying on the mission of GOCF.”

Mrs. Deal said in the position, she intends to focus on a diverse array of issues affecting Georgia’s children, including education, childhood obesity and human trafficking.

“I’m like a mother bear fighting for her cubs,” quipped Mrs. Deal, citing her credentials as a mother, grandmother and teacher. “I want to do what I can to fight for the children in the state.”


Ballard previously served as Gov. Deal’s director of Constituent Services. In this capacity, she oversaw 15 employees of the staff who handle constituent correspondence and serve as a liaison between Georgians and state agencies.

She replaces Jennifer Bennecke who will officially resign on August 15. Bennecke, who is pregnant with her first child, will not return following maternity leave, according to an email circulated to GOCF’s advisory board last month. Bennecke’s departure comes not long after received a letter to GOCF from the Georgia Office of Audits and Accounts announcing plans to perform a “special examination” of GOCF’s “performance and expenditures, including Children’s Trust Fund revenues, that may be considered in connection with potential mergers with other organizations.”

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue created GOCF in 2008 by joining together the Children’s Trust Fund Commission and the Children and Youth Coordinating Council into one organization. Bennecke was the new organization’s first executive director.

JJIE also reported that Bennecke was also at the center of some controversy earlier this year when Gov. Deal attempted to fold another organization, the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a 20-year old statewide public-private collaboration, and its budget of nearly $8 Million, into GOCF.

During the news conference, Gov. Deal also announced plans for a special legislative session to begin on August 15. He says the proposed controversial one-cent SPLOST sales tax hike and redistricting will be priorities during the special session.

Speaker Ralston said he looks forward to an expedient, yet “transparent, open and fair” redistricting session. “We want to get it done and get out of there,” he said. Gov. Deal came under fire this week from House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) who accused his administration of attempting to purge “the state of Georgia of white Democrats.”

Stacey Abrams

Rep. Abrams said the current plans to create 49 “majority-minority” House districts, represents an increase of seven over the existing configuration.

Speaker Ralston called Rep. Abram’s comments “factually wrong” and “harmful to Georgia.” Lt. Governor Cagle agreed. He asserted that the session will include input from both Georgia lawmakers and citizens.

“We have a responsibility to the citizens of the state to have their voices heard in this process,” he said. “Those voices will be heard.”

Teen Accused of Killing Cop Appears In Court


A Riverdale Ga. teen charged in the shooting death of a Clayton County sheriff's deputy has appeared in Clayton County Superior Court.

Investigators say Jonathan Bun has already confessed to killing Clayton County Sheriff's Deputy Rick Daly.

Daly, 55, was shot and killed after he pulled over a Honda Civic that Bun was riding in. He was attempting to take the 17-year-old into custody for a January armed robbery at a gift store in College Park. The teen then allegedly fled the scene, sparking a five-hour manhunt involving SWAT teams from dozens of area law enforcement agencies. Officers with search dogs later captured him in a wooded area.

Besides the armed robbery charge, Bun also is charged with one count each of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

During the 90-minute hearing GBI special agent Jonathan Spurlock reportedly testified that Bun had admitted during questioning that he shot Daly. He claims Bun called his mother and told her he was scared because he “just shot a cop."

Spurlock also said Bun told him that he had stolen the .40-caliber Glock handgun used to shoot Daly. According to testimony in court on Tuesday, Bun also pointed his weapon at a second deputy as he ran away, but the Glock apparently jammed.

Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson has recused herself from any involvement in the case because she had earlier been a juvenile court judge in cases involving Bun.