Family Feud Part 2

The Georgia House of Representatives has nixed the absorption of the Family Connection Partnership and its funding into the Governor’s Office of Children and Families (GOCF), an agency created in 2008 by then-Governor Sonny Perdue. The Senate has not yet voted on the appropriations.

Officials of the GOFC had said folding the Partnership into their agency would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move countered that consolidating the entities could undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.

The House even included notes emphasizing its decision to quash the proposed transfer of the Partnership, a 20-year-old statewide public-private collaboration with an $8 million budget. “It is the intent of the General Assembly that Family Connection Partnership remains an independent non-profit and shall not be merged into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families,” one note says. “It is the intent of the General Assembly that these funds be administered solely by Family Connection Partnership and shall not be administratively transferred by memorandum of understanding to any other state agency,” says another.

“The House demonstrated its support of the 20 years of collaborative work that we are accomplishing in every county in Georgia to improve the lives of children and families,” said Taifa Butler, the Partnership’s director of policy and communications, via email. “We are thankful for the General Assembly's continued support and for the outpouring of support that we have received across the state from our local and state-level partners. We look forward to continued conversations with the House and the Governor's Office on how we can maximize support and funding for the local collaborative work.”

The House appropriations bill also funded the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, leaving it under the judicial branch.

Last fall discussion arose about moving the commission, a 37-member panel made up of representatives of law enforcement, courts and advocacy groups from each of the state’s congressional districts, to the GOCF. The move was rejected by the state legislature in the past and opposed by many commission members. Perdue replaced a majority of those members in the closing months of his administration.

Two years ago, Perdue attempted to do away with the commission. Then, in last year’s legislative session, his office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The 2010 legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts, where this year’s House left it.

“We’re being treated as a very valuable asset by the legislative and executive branches and the judiciary,” said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker, who chairs the commission.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office of Children and Families in 2008 to fund and coordinate the state’s efforts in prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime and drug abuse. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation.

Abusive Teenage Relationships on the Rise

Thompson High School student Shakira Hudson was 15 when she was killed.  Audrey Atkinson of Covington was 19. Jasmine Harris of Atlanta was 17 and pregnant.

All three died in 2010. Boyfriends or ex-boyfriends were charged with their murders.

The girls' deaths were among 130 recorded by the Georgia Commission on Family Violence and the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence in the 2010 Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Report, the largest number of such homicides since the first annual report in 2003. The report was released at a news conference at the state capitol Wednesday.

Already this year, the agencies have recorded the death of 16-year-old Angel Freeman who was shot through the chest. Clayton County police arrested her 15-year-old on-again-off-again boyfriend.

Although teenagers represent a small percentage of such deaths, they are of increasing concern to law enforcement agencies, courts and victims’ advocates. Violent teen-aged relationships can have long-term repercussions. In almost 30 percent of a sampling of 75 domestic homicide cases, the victims were teenagers when they began their relationship with the person who eventually killed them. Five were only 15 when the relationship started.

“These are troubling statistics,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. “It may be important for school systems to get involved in addressing the issues of domestic violence.”

Hunstein chaired a commission formed by the Supreme Court in 1989 that looked at issues of gender bias statewide. That commission’s recommendations resulted in creation of the Commission on Family Violence.

The 1989 commission heard mostly from adults, Hunstein said. She said she found statistics on violence among dating teenagers in the 2010 report somewhat surprising.

“I don’t know whether it’s a new phenomenon,” she said, “but it certainly needs to be addressed.”

Several national studies reflect the prevalence of abusive relationships among teenagers. A 2008 report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency Focus found that about one in three teenage girls in the United States is a victim of verbal, emotional or physical abuse from a dating partner. And a 2009 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that people 18 and 19 years old are the most frequent victims of stalking.

A separate 2009 study found that in many cases, friends know of the situation. Four in ten teenagers 14 to 17 years old reported having a friend hit or hurt by a boyfriend. Yet 68 percent of teens who had experienced abusive dating relationships said they never confided in their parents.

“Our intention is to encourage community outreach to address this knowledge gap on the part of parents,” the 2010 Georgia report says.

Teenagers who won’t or can’t confide in parents have little recourse in the state’s legal system.

“Georgia law excludes teenagers and young adult victims who are dating but have never lived with their abuser (or who do not share children) from petitioning for a Temporary Protective Order,” the report says. And the “pattern of behavior” necessary to receive an order under the stalking statute is difficult to prove.

The state might be able to prevent some deaths by giving teenagers easier access to protective orders, said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker, chair of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence.

“We allow them to make decisions regarding their health and reproductive systems,” she said. “The question becomes what do we do similarly in cases of abuse if young people decide not to involve their families.”

Escaping contact with an abuser is often difficult for a teenager because both may attend the same school and have mutual friends. Embarrassment or shame may also prevent a victim from seeking help.

“Annabelle,” an 18-year-old girl whose story is told at length in the report, survived an attack by an ex-boyfriend who later committed suicide in front of her. She had reported his abuse to the sheriff but wondered whether she was overreacting.

Parents, teachers, faith leaders, employers and friends might be able to intervene in a teen relationship if they learn the danger signals, officials said.

Many assaults occur when a victim has ended or intends to end the relationship. A victim is at high risk if the abuser has exhibited extreme jealousy, is depressed or has talked about suicide, is a heavy user of alcohol or drugs, has a history of making threats or stalking and has access to weapons.

Georgia ranks tenth in the country in overall domestic violence deaths, said state Attorney General Sam Olens.

Since 2003, the year covered by the first annual report, 962 Georgians have died because of domestic violence.

“Reading this report, I see how much further we have to go,” Olens said.

Juvenile Code Rewrite Off Till Next Year

The first overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile code in 40 years will be at least another year in the making. The rewritten code — Senate Bill 127 — failed to come up for a vote by the deadline to move it on to the House this year.

But because the General Assembly works in two-year sessions, the bill is not dead and may be taken up next year without being reintroduced or reassigned to a committee.

After its first reading in the Senate this year, the bill, also known as the “Children’s code,” was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), who is also the bill’s sponsor.

“We had a hearing on the bill and discovered that some stakeholders had issues with the bill,” said committee aide Emily Fisher, “so Senator Hamrick asked those stakeholders to meet outside of the committee and work out some sort of compromise. The committee was set to hear the bill again, but we ran out of time.”

Hamrick “hopes to have worked out the stakeholders' concerns over the break this summer and fall in order to reach a version of the bill that may be passed and considered in the House,” Fisher said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the rewrite have begun talks with Gov. Nathan Deal. “There’s been some conversation with the governor because he had not been involved with the code, nor had his staff,” said Pat Willis, executive director of VOICES for Georgia’s Children, a statewide organization that supports research, communication, and advocacy for issues related to children and families

Willis said she had not personally participated in a meeting with Deal,  and  she would not characterize his response to the code proposal. But, she said, “He has been vocal about the criminal justice system and not incarcerating folks who don’t need it.”

Deal, a former juvenile court judge, told earlier that juvenile justice should be a component of  a new bi-partisan effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. “I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal said after a news conference announcing the initiative at the state capitol. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.”
And in a meeting with some Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members, Deal stated that he is willing to reassess laws that require or allow children to be prosecuted as adults and serve their time in adult prisons.

Code rewrite supporters also will soon begin talking to members of the state House, where the bill has yet to be introduced.  “Such an extensive bill will take a lot of educating on the House Judiciary Committee,” Willis said.

Proponents of the new juvenile code never expected it to make it out of both chambers of the legislature this year, Willis said.

The decision was made during the 2009-2010 term, when a version of the bill was first introduced, to start with the Senate to avoid having two major judicial bills in the same chamber, she said. A new evidence code was being introduced in the House during that term.

“Having lined up a sponsor and support in the senate, we decided to stick with that,” she said.

Willis said supporters of the new code believe it will pass next year. Although they hoped it would clear the senate in 2011, she said they are   “certainly not” disappointed “in terms of the expected overall outcome.”

After failing to make it to a vote in the 2009-2010 term, the bill, officially the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, was reintroduced on Feb 23.

In the interim, using the 2009 bill as a “draft,”’ authors worked with stakeholders to reach consensus on as many issues as possible.
The legislation would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into 12 articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as deprivation, termination of parental rights and delinquency. New provisions would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, 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 to meet its public in 2008.  In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code.
And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Editor's note: Chandra Thomas also contributed to this story.

Women Volunteers Target Online Ads Selling Sex With Children

Some unlikely Atlanta women are spending hours on the Internet looking for child prostitutes, but not for personal gratification. They’re volunteers who are monitoring websites that advertise children under categories such as “escorts” as part of a new front in the war against sexual trafficking.

Deborah Richardson

“We have found every quarter an exponential increase in the number of girls being exploited,” said Deborah Richardson, executive vice president of the National Center for Civil & Human Rights. “One reason is the internet. Anyone can sit at home and order a young girl for sex as easily as ordering a pizza.” And just as a customer can specify pizza toppings, children can be ordered online by skin color, hair color and age, she said.

Richardson spoke on a panel Friday at Atlanta’s North Avenue Presbyterian Church as part of a town hall meeting called “Take a Stand Against Demand.” The breakfast gathering was sponsored by the Atlanta Women’s Foundation and A Future Not a Past, a campaign spearheaded by the Juvenile Justice Fund.

Speakers emphasized the need to target traffickers, pimps, customers and online advertisers.

Traffickers have found a lucrative business in selling children for sex, Richardson said. “Unlike drugs and guns, girls sell over and over again.”

Jennifer Swain

After the online advertising site Craigslist came under fire last year and shut down its “adult services” section, many of the illicit sex ads moved to a site called, Jennifer Swain, state coordinator of A Future Not a Past said Friday. Volunteers in Atlanta are searching Backpage sites targeted to Atlanta, Saint Louis and Houston for possible child sex advertisements and forwarding suspicious cases to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The cases aren’t hard to find. In a single four-hour session last week, a handful of volunteers found dozens of possibilities. The monitoring will continue for eight weeks, Swain said. “We’re going to give Backpage a run for their money,” she vowed.

Local law enforcement agencies and courts are also stepping up efforts to curb the sale of children for sex, panelists said.

Det. Carol Largent of Cobb County’s Crimes Against Children Unit said her department made a commitment last fall to pursue such cases more intently through methods such as following up on runaway reports. “Within a couple of months,” she said, “we were averaging a case a week of girls involved in prostitution.”

Police agencies need to work with schools, juvenile courts and social service agencies, she said, because children who are truants or runaways can become victims of exploitation.

Sonja Brown

Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Sonja Brown said her office currently has three open trafficking cases, seven open pandering cases and 17 pimping cases, nine involving juveniles. Fulton prosecutors pile on charges such as rape, child molestation and cruelty whenever possible to try to increase prison sentences for people charged with exploiting children for sex, she said.

Sally Yates

On the federal level, U. S. Attorney Sally Yates pointed out that on February 1, Attorney General Eric Holder and other Obama administration officials announced a national crackdown that will involve inter-agency “anti-trafficking coordination teams.” But child trafficking has “long been a priority in our office,” she said.

The same assets, such as transportation, that make Atlanta a business and convention hub make it appealing for child traffickers, she said. “One real problem in Atlanta right now is young women brought in from Mexico.”

Renee Unterman

State Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Gwinnett), an outspoken advocate of treating juveniles caught up in the sex trade as victims, not criminals, said she is encouraged by all the grassroots organizations in Georgia that are taking up the cause. The only Republican woman in the Senate introduced a bill last year that would have kept juveniles under 16 from being charged as criminals, diverting them instead to treatment or therapy.  The bill died without a hearing.  Unterman did not say whether she would reintroduce it, but she urged advocates to continue to speak up for children in the sex trade. “I believe children are victims,” she said. “There’s a certain segment out there that believes they’re criminals. That’s why the legislation is being blocked.”

Richardson of the National Center for Civil & Human Rights also spoke optimistically. “I believe we have come to a tipping point with this issue where we can stop it,” she said. She cited the civil rights movement and the crusade against drunk driving that succeeded when enough people became concerned and involved.

“But shame on us for allowing this to happen,” she said. “Shame on us.”

Family Feud: Family Connection Partnership and its $8M Budget in Limbo

Buried in the Governor’s budget is a plan that is stirring up conflict among children’s advocates in Georgia, pitting supporters of two child welfare agencies against each other.

The plan would fold the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a 20-year old statewide public-private collaboration, and its budget of nearly $8 Million into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF) effective July 1, 2011. Currently the Partnership is attached to the Department of Human Services.

Officials of the GOCF say the change would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move counter that it would undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.

This is the second recent attempt to increase the scope of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created two years ago by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Last year he tried to move the Georgia Commission on Family Violence to the Office, a move rejected by the state legislature in the past and opposed by many former commission members. Perdue replaced a majority of those members in the closing months of his administration. The issue remains under study.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to fund and coordinate the state’s efforts in prevention, intervention and treatment services for children and families, including programs dealing with juvenile crime and drug abuse. The Office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation.

The Georgia Family Connection Partnership has its roots in a pilot initiative established by then-Gov. Zell Miller in 1991 after Georgia placed 50th in the first KIDS COUNT, a national assessment of the welfare of children by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That project evolved into the Partnership, which provides research, planning and technical assistance to help local communities improve the lives of children, By 2004, all of Georgia’s 159 counties had become part of the Family Connection Partnership network. The Partnership has received funding from the Casey, Wal-Mart, Woodruff and Kaiser Foundations.

Gaye Smith

In a blog post on the Family Connection website, Executive Director Gaye Smith said the proposed move caught her by surprise. Supporters are posting notes on Facebook and other Internet sites.

The issue has been simmering for the last two weeks, and came out at the first meeting of the Children & Youth Committee of the Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Gaye Smith was the kickoff speaker, introduced by Chairwoman Judy Manning (R-Marietta) to brief members on the status of children in Georgia. Although the proposed budget change was not actually on the agenda, state Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) asked Smith about its implications.

“We feel like some things might be at risk,” Smith said, including “the private sector funding we have received up to this point over the last 20 years.” The proposal came “as a surprise to us,” she said.

The only other invited speaker also opposed the move. Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, told the committee that her organization would like to see the Partnership preserved in its current form. A blog on the Voices website says, “The logic behind this move is baffling… [Family Connection Partnership] has a reputation for good, reliable work in 159 counties of the state and helps multitudes of families. It secures decent funding from the private sector (much of which would be lost if absorbed into GOCF)…All that said we are left with the inevitable question: What problem would this move solve? I don’t have an answer. Do you?”

Jen Bennecke

The Governor's Office for Children and Families Executive Director Jen Bennecke was in the audience, but was not asked to speak. When we asked her about the possible consolidation after the meeting, Bennecke said it would promote “both efficiency and effectiveness....We’re looking at how can we better use our resources, and how can we improve outcomes.”

GOCF and the Partnership have prepared dueling documents presenting their arguments for and against the move. Here are some excerpts:

  • GOCF: The transfer would “maximize the state’s ability to leverage. . .state, federal and other funds to improve outcomes for children and families.”
  • Partnership: “Georgia Family Connection leverages $5 for every $1 of state funding from other local, state and federal funds . . .The change would in fact eliminate Georgia’s ability to match funds, and Georgia Family Connection risks losing private investments.”
  • GOCF: “As a unified agency it can better align its resources to facilitate collaborative solutions to statewide and local issues.”
  • Partnership: “Expanding GOCF, a state agency, runs contrary to a signature component of Gov. [Nathan] Deal’s budget—curbing the growth of the number of state employees. Beyond that we, like Gov. Deal, believe money is leveraged best in the form of local-state partnerships, and that Georgians should have the opportunity to shape investment in their communities.”
  • GOCF: “Governor’s Budget Recommendation would eliminate 5 positions and transfer $7,432,386 in state funds to GOCF.”
  • Partnership: “Because [the Partnership] is not a state agency, this proposed elimination of five positions does not reduce the state personnel head count and associated salaries. . .”

In its handout GOCF promises that the local Family Connection Partnerships will continue, as will the “planning, assessment and collaboration” that Partnership coordinators do in Georgia communities.

Rep. Sanford Bishop

Concern in some of those communities has reached the U.S. Capitol where Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) weighed in, writing a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal. “Calhoun County Family Connection, Early County Family Connection along with many other local organizations have expressed concern regarding the proposed consolidation and transfer of appropriated funds from Georgia Family Connection Partnership to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families,” Bishop wrote. “During these challenging economic times, it is vital that the many public-private partnerships that Georgia Family Connection Partnership has developed over many years continue into the future. . . . It therefore is important to ensure Georgia Family Connection’s continued success across the state, and I urge you to keep their concerns in mind as you finalize the state’s FY12 budget.”

The proposed 2012 budget must go through a gauntlet of hearings, votes and negotiations before it becomes final. At this point nothing is certain about the proposed move except that it is encountering strong opposition.

Committee to Study Future of Georgia Commission on Family Violence

The Georgia Commission on Family Violence set up a governance committee Friday in the midst of ongoing questions about where in state government the agency belongs.
In its 2010 session, the state legislature attached the 37-member commission’s budget to the Administrative Office of the Courts within the judicial branch, and there is strong support for having it remain there. But there are also those—reportedly including Gov. Sonny Perdue—who would like to see it come under the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in the executive branch.  The possibility of moving the agency raises questions about its future, as reported Thursday.
At the commission’s quarterly meeting, chairwoman Peggy Walker, a Douglas County juvenile court judge, asked members to volunteer for the new governance committee which will study the benefits and drawbacks to moving the agency, and look at how other states handle similar agencies.
The committee will be headed by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua and will include Pardons and Paroles board member James Donald,  Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Fox, majority whip Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), Henry County Solicitor General Charles Spanos and Robert Thornton, criminal services director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which includes representatives of several other agencies and councils.
The full commission will consider the committee’s recommendation and determine whether to  pass it on to the state legislature, which has the final say-so.

Gayle White is a freelance reporter who spent 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts.

Future Uncertain for Georgia Commission on Family Violence

The Georgia Commission on Family Violence has bounced among state agencies for the last 18 years - from Human Resources to the Administrative Office of the Courts to Corrections and back to the Courts. Now there are new questions about its future. 

In the most recent change, the General Assembly voted late in the 2010 session to move the agency’s $428,000 budget from the Department of Corrections in the executive branch to the Administrative Office of the Courts in the judicial branch—but failed to amend the law to actually move the agency because time ran out. Corrections transferred management to the Courts by agreement.

Now there’s discussion about moving the Commission again, this time to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created by outgoing Governor Sonny Perdue two years ago. Supporters say services should be combined under one umbrella. But the legislature has rejected such a move in the past.

The Commission is scheduled to meet on Friday under the leadership of Judge Peggy Walker, a Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge elected as chairwoman in September. Walker said this week that she will ask members of the Commission to form a committee to look at how it should be governed. The governance committee will examine the pros and cons of different arrangements, look at how other states handle similar agencies, and make a recommendation to the full Commission. Proposed changes must go to the legislature.

“We will be looking at where the Commission can best be attached to serve its functions,” Walker said. “The critical issue is the independence of the Commission. . . The focus will absolutely be on the work, not the politics.”

The Commission was formed in 1992 to develop a comprehensive state-wide plan for ending family violence. The agency conducts research, provides training, monitors legislation, certifies intervention programs, and co-ordinates the statewide Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project. It also offers guidance and works with task forces in local communities.

A degree of autonomy is crucial, Walker said, because to fulfill its function the Commission has to point out flaws in the state’s system. “We have to be able to look at where the gaps are and where the problems are, and we have to be able to have very frank discussions,” Walker said.

Friday’s gathering will be the first full meeting for many of the 37 commissioners. Perdue made 24 appointments in August, including two reappointments. The new group took office in September. Besides the governor’s appointees, the Commission includes by statute three members each from the state house and senate, and representatives of some state agencies and departments.

Some outgoing members oppose a possible move to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, partially out of fear that the move would eventually mean elimination of the Commission.

Two years ago, the governor tried to do away with the Commission; in the 2010 session, the governor’s office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the Commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has obtained a copy of a proposed Intergovernmental Agreement among the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Commission on Family Violence that would give administrative oversight of the Commission to the Office for Children and Families. The agreement, which would have taken effect on Sept. 10, has not been addressed by the Commission.

Some Commission supporters speculate that an effort is underway to accomplish administratively what could not be done legislatively.

In a letter to new members, outgoing member Judge Clarence Seeliger of DeKalb County expressed concern that supporting a move to the Office for Children and Families was a “pre-condition” of being appointed for new members.

Walker, who has been on the Commission since 2006 and was just reappointed, said Perdue “never made it a pre-condition of appointment to adopt any position,” although, she said, “the governor made it clear what he wanted.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, as head of the judicial branch where the Commission is now housed, said she doesn’t believe she has the authority to transfer the budget without action by the state legislature. “Every indication I have is that the Commission is functioning very well,” she said.

Hunstein takes great interest in the work of the Commission. She headed a group formed by the Supreme Court in 1989 that looked at issues of gender bias statewide. “One of the most significant findings was that there was a real problem with domestic violence cases and how they were being handled by law enforcement and the judiciary system,” she said. That group recommended creation of a statewide commission on domestic violence. The Commission on Family Violence resulted.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to coordinate and fund prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation. Discussions are underway for the possible transfer of about $13 million in funding for domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers from the Department of Human Services to the Office.

The Governor's Office for Children and Families announced in August that it was forming a new family violence unit that would “develop a comprehensive strategic plan for eliminating family violence.” To “jump start” the development, there were six regional hearings around the state in September and October.

Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke attended the September meeting of the Commission on Family Violence and was questioned about her agency’s role in domestic violence.

“I’m trying to figure out why we have two different state agencies doing the same thing,” one legislative member of the Commission told her. “It’s the duty of the Commission to do this. I’m trying to figure out why your office is doing this.”

In a telephone interview this week, Bennecke said her office “has a number of strengths. We want to see how we can contribute.” She said conversations are ongoing about what the roles of various entities will be. “How we all work together collectively is still under discussion.”

Asked whether she would like to see the Commission come under her office, she said, “I wouldn’t personally say I want to go on the record about that . . . I’m looking for my direction from the governor, whom I report to.”

In January, that governor will be Nathan Deal. And the legislature will convene again with some new members. It’s unclear what that will mean for who controls work against domestic violence in Georgia.

Judge Michael Key Targets Zero Tolerance, Legal Orphans, Crossover Cases and More on National Stage

LaGrange—Judge Michael Key is a hometown boy, a son of  the cotton mill village where he played rhythm guitar in a rock-and-roll band on Saturday nights and went to a Southern Baptist Church on Sundays. He was headed off to Emory University’s law school before he ever met a lawyer.

“Back then people just didn’t go from the mill village to being a lawyer,” he says.

For 31 years, Key (LaGrange High School, class of ’68) has been back home practicing law. For 21 of those years, he’s also been a part-time juvenile court judge.

Now the hometown boy has a national platform. As president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Key, 61, is a leader and spokesman for colleagues all over the country. He was sworn in on July 20.

Key—like other juvenile court judges—sees children at some of the worst times of their lives. Some are before him accused of crimes; others are victims of abuse or neglect, known in Georgia as deprivation.

Dealing with children is different than with adults, he says. In Superior Court, when a verdict is rendered, “the case is over and it’s on to the next case. That’s not the way it works in juvenile court.”

Federal law requires continued oversight of deprivation cases; as far as Key is concerned, moral law requires ongoing involvement in delinquency cases. Key reviews every child on probation every four months just to see how their lives are going.

“It’s not our job—and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way—just to call balls and strikes as we see them,” he says. “It’s our job to solve the problem. We see cases not just at one point in time but over a period of time. Hopefully we can resolve the issues.”

Often lines are blurred between delinquency and deprivation. “In deprivation, the parents are presented as the problem, but you can’t ignore the children in the process,” he says. “In delinquency, the child is presented to the court as the problem, but in most cases you can’t solve the problems without involving parents. In both cases you should have total family engagement.”

Many children are “crossover,” or “dual jacket” cases, so-called because they have file folders as both victims and delinquents. Unfortunately, the cases are usually dealt with separately, Key says. “The fact that we call them crossover youth suggests one of the problems we have,” he says. “You shouldn’t be crossing over within the same system.”

The National Council has a committee studying how to handle crossover cases more holistically.

The point, Key often tells audiences at workshops, is that “we want to be sure that every child is in care who needs to be in care—and not one child more.” It’s a philosophy he applies to foster care, probation and incarceration. The results in Troup County are evident in the statistics.

“I was talking with the chief probation officer and a couple of other staff members yesterday,” Key said earlier this month, “and our numbers are really low of kids under supervision. That’s deliberate. We’ve worked hard to get it that way. We’ve got the kids on probation that we need on probation, and we can spend time with those kids and give them services. . . .On the deprivation side, we have reduced, over 5 1/2 years, the number of kids in foster care in Troup County from 223 to 46. We got the numbers down because we worked the cases.”

Key has been a model to other judges, says Sharon Hill, a former juvenile judge who is now executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Appleseed. “He’s always cared deeply for the families and children before him. He’s in the forefront of best practices. I always looked to Judge Key for the right way to do things.”

Judge F. Bryant Henry, Jr., of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, calls Key “a tireless advocate for improving the way we do our work to improve the lives of families and children.”
“He’s very generous in sharing his experience and expertise,” Henry says, and, “he’s very innovative in trying new things that would improve the processes we use, and the outcomes.”

Michelle Barclay, assistant director of the Office of Children, Families and Courts under Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, has known him for about 15 years. “He’s got a lot of compassion,” she says. “One reason people are so attracted to him is there’s this part of him that’s so empathetic.”

Key expressed his empathy for children in thoughts he jotted down after a national conference:

“Their belongings in a bag, their hearts on a sleeve or tucked securely away,

Their futures not their own but held in the hands of those who do not know them.

Their worlds asunder; insecurity and mistrust their constant companions.

They come to us looking for answers, for understanding, for hope, for resolution.

What we give them will determine who they are and who they will forever be.

Equally as important, what they become because of their having passed our way will define our lives and our place in history.”

Because Key is always trying to improve, he’s willing to listen to other people’s points of view and even to change his mind, Barclay says. “He’s not wishy-washy but will moderate the way he’s thinking.”

Key says one opinion he’s changed is about incarcerating all kids convicted of drug and weapons charges. “We were putting some of our kids too deep into the system and doing more harm than good,” he says. The county was operating a diversion program for juveniles with misdemeanors. A friend convinced Key to extend it to some more serious offenses.

“A lot of kids caught in their first drug offense do not belong in the juvenile court system,” he says. As for weapons in schools, “zero tolerance is a mistake. It’s a mistake from the school’s perspective. It’s a mistake from the court’s perspective.”

Extending the opportunity for diversion fits with another Key belief—that courts should be the least intrusive and the least restrictive possible. That means, he says, that courts should try to “support families, not supplant families” and “to the greatest extent possible, let children be children and let families be families.”

As president of the National Council, Key, already a popular speaker, can have greater influence on national attitudes. It’s not the kind of office “where we have a platform we want to conclude in a year,” he says. Nevertheless, he is focusing on some areas of concern.

One is internal. Key, who has an M.B.A., is looking at the operations of the council. He’s also appointed committees to study military families in the justice system, and legal orphans.

“There are so many soldiers coming back from war,” he says.  “At one time all soldiers lived in concentrated areas. Now that the National Guard is being deployed so much, when those people come back they’re not at Ft. Benning . They’re living in Troup County, Carroll County, Meriwether County and all these other counties where our judges are not as used to dealing with military law issues, military pay issues, military retirement issues.”

Military families bring “unique issues of family violence, deprivation, delinquency,” he says. “Particularly when they go to war, it makes those issues even more difficult to serve.”

“Legal orphans” are children whose parents’ rights have been terminated but who have not been adopted. Some have grown up with no permanent placement.

“Each of the last three or four years, we in Georgia have had over 100 children age out of foster care without a permanent family,” Key says. “We’ve cut off all legal connections to any family on this earth, and now they’re adults.”

Six to eight states, including Georgia, will be involved in a pilot program to address the problem, Key said.

The National Council, under Key’s leadership, will also continue efforts to ensure that community-based services are in place for status offenders—juveniles whose crimes, such as truancy or running away would not be illegal for adults.

“The judges don’t like to lock children up just for sake of locking them up, whether status offenders or otherwise,” he says, “but we have been denied services to meet the needs of our children.”

Key still practices law at Key & Gordy, a general interest law firm in downtown LaGrange. “Being a lawyer makes me a better judge,” he says, “and being a judge makes me better lawyer.”

Although he still “loves” both roles, he says he would like—someday—to be a full-time judge.

In juvenile court, of course.

Kids – Not Parents – Get to Call the Shots in Court Under New Code

Parents are not always the best advocates for children charged with crimes. In fact, parents may be uninvolved, absent, or even hostile, experts told state senators as they discussed proposed changes to Georgia’s juvenile code.

Some of those experts were young people who’ve been through the juvenile justice system. They are identified by first names only:

  • Giovan, 20, was only 11 months old when he entered foster care. By 12, he was also in the juvenile justice system, declared unruly for cursing at foster parents he says repeatedly told him he was worth nothing. His offenses escalated until eventually he served a year in detention. His foster parents were often the ones who reported him, he said.  “I felt alienated and helpless as the court proceeded to hear my case,” he said.
  • Kelly, 22, was removed from her alcoholic mother at age 12. She soon started acting out, and was put on probation. Four years later, after a rocky relationship with foster parents, she was placed in a youth home where her own alcoholism and drug abuse came to light.
  • Aaron went into foster care at 5. “My mother, the only person I knew, was yanked from my grasp,” he said. At 13, he started to get into trouble.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee visited the sensitive topic of parent-child relationships on Thursday as they examined sections of the new code dealing with juvenile delinquency.

The proposed code, known as SB292, would specify that only the state and the accused child are parties in a delinquency case. Parents would have the right to be present in the courtroom and to be heard, but not to speak for their children or make legal decisions on their behalf.

If the child wants to testify, or confess, or go to court without an attorney, parents would have no legal standing to interfere. It’s the child who faces the consequences. But the new code would allow children charged with crimes to waive the right to legal representation only after meeting with a lawyer.

Current Georgia law is unclear on who the actual parties are, said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University. “That’s one of the ambiguities we are hoping to clear up.”

Widner presented the proposals to the committee on behalf of JUSTGeorgia, a coalition of organizations behind the rewrite of the code, which is expected to be re-introduced in the 2011 legislative session.

Some senators expressed concern about the effects of excluding parents. Parents can “stand in their children’s shoes” to sign civil contracts, Sen. Jason Carter (D-Atlanta), pointed out. Why not in delinquency cases?

“What an 11-year-old wants is not always what an 11-year-old needs,” said Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome).

“Don’t you believe that if a child has a right to a lawyer and is going to waive that right, he ought to have an opportunity to talk that over with his parents?” asked Sen. John Crosby (R-Tifton). “In most cases parents love their children.”

“In general people love their children,” Widner agreed, “but a lot of parents we see in juvenile court don’t have the same skill level we see in the rest of society. We see families that have in general more challenges than the average family.”

And, she adds, like the day’s young witnesses, many children charged with delinquency are in the foster care system. Parents who are responsible, engaged and involved with their children will have “ample opportunity” to advise their children, Widner said.

“The truth oftentimes is that parents are not there to represent their child,” said Randee J. Waldman, an Emory law professor and director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory. “They’ll say, ‘Send my kid to jail. My kid needs to learn a lesson.”

Often, she said, parents or guardians themselves are bringing the charges against the child. “Parents sometimes just want their child to be fixed,” she said. “They want their child to be sent to detention to be fixed.”

The new code has standards to make sure a child is competent to make his own legal decisions (the topic for another hearing) and judges can appoint a guardian ad litem to make sure the child’s best interests are known.

From the judge’s perspective, “We make every effort to get the parents to court,” said Judge Peggy Walker of Douglas County, “but we discover a lot of abuse and neglect cases as the result of juvenile action.”

The committee took no action, and plans to hold at least one more hearing on delinquency issues.

Children in Need of Services

Anyone passing by room 450 at Georgia’s capitol on Monday probably thought lawmakers were talking about facial parts. The Senate Judiciary Committee was actually discussing CHINS—the acronym for Children in Need of Services—an important concept in the rewrite of the state’s juvenile code.

In the proposed code, expected to be introduced when the legislature convenes in 2011, the term would replace language in the current code about “status offenders.” The change is more than semantic.

Status offenses are acts that would not be crimes for adults, such as truancy or running away from home. Children who commit such offenses in Georgia can be classified as “unruly” or “ungovernable,” and under the current code can be detained “for days, weeks or even months in secure detention facilities,” according to a report prepared for the Senate committee by the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law.

The change in language and approach is an attempt to address the issues and institutions that contribute to problem behavior without resorting to the legal system.

“Labels are not helpful,” Sharon Hill, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Georgia Appleseed, told the committee. “Labeling a child as a status offender, unruly, ungovernable, doesn’t get at what’s going on in that child’s life, that child’s family.”

Treating status offenders as children who need services could help keep many youths from “getting deeper and deeper into the juvenile justice system and ultimately into the adult prison system,” said Hill, a former Fulton County juvenile court judge.

The new approach would require that, in most cases, a multidisciplinary conference— possibly including parents, school officials, social workers, mental health professionals or other specialists—convene to form a family services plan. If the plan fails, the case would revert to court oversight. The proposed new code also provides that CHINS should receive services in the least restrictive environment possible.

Each county would determine who would be part of the conference, Hill said.

A string of additional witnesses appeared before the committee. None expressed philosophical opposition to the CHINS approach but had concerns about the resources required to implement it.

“This is important work,” said Wayne Drummond, executive director of the Georgia County Welfare Association, but he said he believes the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) should not always have to be the lead agency in the multidisciplinary approach. Placing that responsibility on DFACS without adding resources could diminish the agency’s ability to investigate child abuse and neglect cases and ultimately compromise the safety of some children, he said.

Bobby Cagle of DFACS concurred. “We are in support of the philosophy behind this change in law,” he said. “But all of this requires a lot of staff time, and when you’re talking about staff, you’re talking about money.”

Other speakers averred that the change would actually save money in the long run by keeping kids out of the expensive detention system.

Nobody really knows how much it would cost to implement CHINS, or whether some of the costs could simply be shifted. According to one estimate based on figures from a similar program in Massachusetts, the state would have to hire extra social workers at a cost of about 3-million dollars. Some of the expense might be offset by savings if the state detains fewer children, at an average cost of about $200 a day per child.

“We’re already serving these children,” said Judge Peggy Walker, a juvenile judge in Douglas County. “We’re just changing the name of what we call it, and changing how we do it.”

One speaker’s interest in the change is personal, not professional. “I want to tell you why I would support this,” said a DeKalb County father, who asked that his name not be used. He went on to describe the difficulty he has had with his son, who’s been in trouble at school, abused alcohol and drugs, and eventually ran away from home. “We were reticent to go to court,” he said, “but we wanted some kind of assistance.” His son, now 17, is still living away from home.  He thinks a multidisciplinary approach might work for his son. Otherwise, he said, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Most of the 14 Senate Judiciary Committee members heard the discussion, and they’re expected to hold several more hearings before the legislature convenes in January.

A version of the juvenile code was introduced in April, 2009, as Senate Bill 292. That bill failed to make it through the legislative process by the end of the two-year term. It must be reintroduced in 2011.

The process of rewriting the state’s juvenile code began six years ago with a request from 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. In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Read more:

Summary of SB292



Gayle White is a freelance reporter who spent 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts