Revived Runaway Act, Good Behavior Bill Close Out 2011 Legislative Session

Governor Deal addresses the State Senate on the last day of the 2011 session.

When Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold) passed Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner in a crowded hallway in the state capitol Thursday evening, he couldn’t resist passing on kudos. “You’ve had a good day,” he said, leaning in with a smile and an outstretched hand. “You’ve had a good day too,” she responded, with a grin and firm shake.


That exchange, in many ways, summed up the reaction many state child advocates and members of the Georgia General Assembly have expressed about the official close of the 2011 legislative session. And it’s not so surprising.

The last full day wrapped up with House Bill 373, also known as the juvenile “Good Behavior bill” and a revived version of the "Runaway Youth Safety Act," both approved and headed to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office for signatures. Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs) introduced a House version of Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — this week. Representatives from child advocacy organizations Barton and Voices for Georgia’s Children, also confirmed this month that the Senate version, SB 127, had received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” That news came on the heels of the state Senate’s unanimous vote in support of HB 200, the human trafficking bill that toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to improve outcomes for victims.

“The Georgia General Assembly made time for children's issues,” said Widner, who spent most of the day with her eyes fixed on the closed-circuit television screens perched near the Senate and House chamber doors respectively. “They took their time with the human trafficking, runaway and DJJ’s (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice) 'Good Behavior' bills and made some real progress this session.”

Rep. Weldon, still basking in the glow of his afternoon victory, agreed.

“The Georgia Runaway Youth Safety Act moves Georgia law forward and ensures that children who could not get services now have a lot more outlets in the state to obtain help,” he said of SB 94, which would allow runaway shelters to provide emergency housing and services to minors for 72 hours while parental notification is pending. “This authorizes good people to provide services for a forgotten group of children who need help.”

Rep. Weldon said after his version of the Runaway Act, also known as HB 185, failed to make the Crossover Day deadline, its “language” was added into Senator Bill Heath's (R-Bremen) SB 94 gun bill, allowing it to pass in time for the last day.

“He agreed to let us to take out his gun bill language and replace it with ours,” Rep. Weldon explained, referring to the Runaway Act. “So essentially, the bill died in the House but was revived by a sub-committee in the Senate.”

Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney expressed mixed emotions about the 2011 session.

“Overall better than usual,” she said, noting the challenges budget cuts posed for lawmakers and state agencies. “We didn’t get all that we wanted passed, but there was a fair amount of discourse with the governor and that’s very helpful. Any session where there’s a lot of fighting over what (funds or programs) has to be cut, you’re going to have a tough time.”

The state capitol bustled with activity on the last day of the 2011 session.

McKinney applauded the “Good Behavior Bill,” calling it “a more holistic approach to child well-being” and “reward-based as opposed to punitive.” She also described the fact that both the House and Senate introduced versions of the Code Rewrite this session as a “major accomplishment” that will allow stakeholders to “work on it together in 2012.”

Although the special session is slated to begin in August, Widner noted that discussions are already underway for plans to host joint hearings on the Code Rewrite -– including both the House and Senate judiciary committee members -– as early as June.

Sen. Emanuel Jones’ (D-Decatur) juvenile parole board bill, which proposed to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel appointed by the DJJ commissioner, did not advance this session. Still overall, he said, some strides were made in the area of juvenile justice in Georgia.

“The important thing about this session is that the governor took an interest in tackling issues regarding our prison population; youth offenders as well as adult offenders,” he said.

Sen. Jones and other child welfare advocates also touted the governor's new bi-partisan initiative aimed at overhauling the state's criminal justice system as another important legislative milestone this session. State legislative leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb), Attorney General Sam Olens and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville) joined the governor in February in announcing plans to assemble a new special council that they will all take part in. The legislation introduced by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) calls for a council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee no later than Jan. 9, 2012.

“The governor’s commitment to look into SB 440 and SB 441, the laws dealing with mandatory minimums (sentences) for certain serious offenses, is really what this [council] is designed to do,” said Sen. Jones, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “I would have liked more progress on these issues, including on the juvenile code, but unfortunately sometimes you have to face the political headwinds.”

Sen. Jones’ fellow Black Caucus member Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) said she too believes that juvenile justice issues “fared well” in 2011. Her only request was that the governor ensure that diverse representation is a priority on his bi-partisan council.

Lt. Governor Cagle introduces Gov. Deal on the Senate floor.

“People of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, so I just hope that people of color are included in the process,” she said. “But I am excited about this step and I am hopeful.”

Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) wasn’t nearly as optimistic about the session.

“These bills and initiatives are some of the more positive things to come out of the legislature in a long time, but those are just structural things,” he said, in between votes on the Senate floor. “As a state we need to do much more to protect children. We still have hungry children; undereducated children that lack health care. The solutions to those issues lie in making a real investment in children. That’s the only way to prevent those problems.”

He also expressed disappointment over measures that failed to pass.

“We did not raise the school attendance age, we cut funds for K-12 education and to be honest we’re looking at ‘tweaking’ the criminal justice system,” Sen. Fort said of the general assembly as a whole. “At the same time we gave a $26 million tax break to Delta (Airlines) and gave several million dollars to [aerospace and aircraft manufacturing company] Gulfstream. The fact of the matter is that we’ve had more discussion about Sunday liquor sales than investing in our children.”

Crossover Day Update

Crossover Day – the second longest work day on the Georgia General Assembly calendar – has wrapped up leaving some key juvenile justice and child-focused bills dead for the 2011 session.

SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and HB 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children, are among the measures that didn’t meet the crucial deadline. VIEW SOME OF THE KEY JUVENILE JUSTICE AND CHILD-FOCUSED LEGISLATION.

“It had not made it out of [the] Rules [Committee] in time and that’s very disappointing,” says HB 185 sponsor Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold). “It looked like it was going to progress.”

HB 265, which supports Governor Nathan Deal’s recent effort to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee, was overwhelmingly approved by the House, 169-1. Governor Deal has told that he hopes juvenile justice will be a part of that review due out next year.

SB 80, which would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to submit a DNA sample for analysis in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation database, did make it in time. The grueling 11-hour workday included its passage in the Senate. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the governor, the measure would help solidify convictions on felony charges and identify suspects in other crimes. Twenty-four states and the federal government have similar programs in place. Supporters, including sponsor Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), tout it as an effective way to close cold cases and free people wrongly convicted of crimes.

A House vote on Sunday liquor sales, meantime, is stirring up debate about underage drinking. Religious conservatives on the Republican side joined some black Democrats in opposing SB 10 in a 32-22 vote. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) is among the vocal opponents of the measure now headed to the House.

“Young people drink on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, so this is going to increase underage drinking,” says Sen. Fort, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “There are going to be more [car] crashes due to this.”

Sen. Fort says supporters should consider the many unintended consequences. “This will contribute to more violence against women and children; that’s why I voted against it,” he says.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) disagrees with his fellow Black Caucus member. “This bill is about local control; empowering people to make choices in their community,” he says. “If their local jurisdiction puts it on ballot they will have the opportunity to vote on it; if their jurisdiction doesn’t then they won’t. This is not about promoting underage drinking. Creating a choice is what we passed today.”

Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) says assertions that SB 10 will contribute to more minors drinking are “absurd.”  He too contends the measure is about choice.

“Right now there are those who choose to drive to a bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on Sundays and consume alcohol and can drink to their heart’s content; this is about giving the very same right to their counterpart who wants to drive pass that same bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on a Sunday and instead buy some alcohol from a package store and consume it at home. ”

Sen. Fort

Cobb Alcohol Taskforce spokeswoman Alisa Bennett-Hart shares Sen. Fort’s concerns.

“The trends do support that young people drink more on weekends, so adding an extra day of access to it definitely will have an impact,” she says. “If adults did not provide alcohol to them, this would not be a problem.”

Bennett-Hart say the non-profit, which combats underage drinking in Cobb County primarily by targeting the actions of adults, is not a “prohibitionist group” opposed to all alcohol consumption.

“We believe it is the right and privilege of anyone over the age of 21,” she says. “We have a problem with adults who provide alcohol to underage children who do not have the right and privilege to consume alcohol.”

Rep. Mitchell says issues, such as the ones raised by Bennett-Hart are better addressed in other ways. “We have laws in place for that,” he says.

Sen. Jones echoes a similar sentiment. He says it is unfair to place so many concerns on one bill. “This doesn’t address underage drinking, alcoholism or kids being able to buy alcohol,” he says. “Those are issues that still impact and affect our community. We are the ones who have to protect our kids from that. We have to ensure that businesses are not selling alcohol to underage kids. Those laws are already on the books and should be enforced.”

Bennett-Hart predicts that “adding another day” of alcohol sales will be problematic for already overextended agencies charged with cracking down on underage drinking and sales. The Taskforce, she says, will be using next month’s “Alcohol Awareness Month” designation to educate Cobb County leaders and residents about the organization’s concerns.

Going up against the powerful alcohol lobby ultimately will be an uphill battle, Sen. Fort predicts.

“We already know what’s going to happen,” he says if and when the measure ever goes before voters. “These liquor folks are going to put a lot of money into a referendum. The opposition’s not going to have that kind of money to pump into TV commercials and ads like they will.”


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 and People, Essence and Atlanta magazines.

Crossover Day Is Here: The Latest On Juvenile Justice, Child Focused Legislation

Today is Crossover Day — the critical mid-point in the legislative session, when Senate bills move over to the House and House bills transition to the Senate. Any House bills that have not passed their chamber of origin will not progress in 2011. Because this is the first year of the  two-year legislative cycle, any bills that fail to cross over may still be considered in 2012.

Here’s an update on some of the legislation pertaining to young people in Georgia and juvenile justice issues that has been following.

Senate Bills

  • SB 31 would expand attorney-client privilege to cover parents' participation in private conversations with defense attorneys representing their children in delinquent or criminal cases. The bill introduced in January by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) gives the child – not the parent – exclusive rights to waive the privilege. This measure passed the Senate on February 23 and now awaits consideration by the House Civil Judiciary Committee.
  • Introduced last month by Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), SB 80 would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to give a DNA sample.  It would be analyzed and kept in a database by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The Senate State Institutions and Property Committee voted affirmatively on it last week. It now awaits consideration by the full Senate.
  • SB 105 proposes to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel appointed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) commissioner. The petition for parole could be brought by either the child in custody for a designated felony or DJJ. It requires a recommendation by a DJJ counselor placement supervisor no less than a year after the child has been in the department's custody. Sponsored by Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), it was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) March 4 and awaits further consideration by the committee. Sen. Jones has told that he will support a similar bill, HB 373 (see description below), if necessary. “The key is getting something out there that works,” he says. “If HB 373 gets passed, let’s go with it. I wholeheartedly support it.”
  • SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and Child Protection and Public Safety Act, has not yet made it out of the SJC, making it more likely that it won’t advance any further this session. That would be a major blow for supporters who have been involved in the rewriting process since 2004. Some local child advocates are hinting off the record to that some exciting updates are expected on this soon. Sen. Jones says SJC chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick tells him that supporters of the measure have been “in discussions with Governor [Nathan] Deal about this.”, of course, will keep you posted on any new developments.
  • SB 208, the Dropout Deterrent Act, has been assigned to the Senate Education and Youth Committee (SEYC). Introduced by Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) on March 4, this bill proposes to raise the age that children are required to be in school from 16 to 17 years of age.  The parent of a 16-year-old would be allowed to sign a waiver allowing the child to go to technical school or community college instead of a traditional public school. The measure is similar to SB 49 introduced by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell). It proposes to raise the required school age from 16 to 16.5 years of age. “That one might be debated on Crossover Day and if it gets pushed through I will support it,” says Sen. Fort. “My bill increases the age to 17, although I prefer 18.  I think 17 is a good compromise. The fact of the matter is that thousands of young people drop out and do so at a great cost to themselves and the rest of the state. If thousands don’t show up for 11th grade they’re more than likely going to end up in the juvenile justice system. More than half of those in the system now don’t graduate high school and we end up paying for them on the back end with prison and public assistance.”
  • SB 224, introduced by Sen. Jones on March 7, would limit the cases where children age 13 or older would automatically be tried for aggravated child molestation in superior court rather than juvenile court. Only cases where the victim is physically injured would immediately go to adult court. “This is a very good bill designed to keep cases in juvenile court rather than having these kids tried in adult court,” says Sen. Jones, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “A lot of states are beginning to do this. This protects juveniles by ensuring that kids who commit these infractions, especially when it is consensual, can stay in juvenile court where their records can be sealed and they have a real shot at rehabilitation.” The bill has been referred to the SJC. “This measure has bi-partisan support and we’re looking for [another bill] to attach it to,” notes Sen. Jones. “Any time a bill comes through we can amend that bill as long as it addresses the same chapter and title. HB 373 (see description below) would be a great vehicle for us. If that bill continues moving forward we’ll attach it to 373 and let it ride along!"

House Bills

  • Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver’s (D-Decatur) Foster Children's Psychotropic Medication Monitoring Act, also known as HB 23, is likely dead for this session. It would have required the Department of Human Services (DHS) to create procedures to ensure that the psychotropic medication administered to children in foster care is appropriate and delivered with informed consent of the parent. Children over the age of 14 could also provide their own consent. The bill would have also required DHS to keep records of the medications and other therapies received or recommended by the child. Rep. Oliver has agreed to drop the measure for the time being, according to Kirsten Widner, policy director for Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. The center has received funding for a pilot program that would better track the medications foster children receive. The endeavor is a partnership between Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based national foundation, and DHS. “Rep. Oliver has agreed to hold the bill for now and see how this pilot program goes,” says Widner. “We’re really excited to work with Casey Family Programs.”
  • The House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee has given a favorable recommendation to HB 185, also known as the Runaway Youth Safety Act. The measure, sponsored by Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold) now awaits consideration by the full House. It would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children. It also prevents facilities that serve runaways from violating two state laws: contributing to the unruliness of a minor and interference of custody of a parent, so long as staffers either contact a parent or file an abuse report within the first 72 hours of contact with the child. “This bill allows shelters to care for the child up to three days as long as they are trying to reunite this child with their parents or guardian,” explains Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “It also requires these shelters to be registered and follow certain best practices in regard to child welfare.  These requirements are necessary to assure that those who are providing substitute care are accountable to someone for the care rendered.”
  • HB 200, which seeks to toughen the penalty for sex traffickers and improve outcomes for victims, passed the full House on March 2. The measure introduced by Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta) now awaits consideration by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “Committee Chairperson Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Gwinnett) has said she will make it a priority,” says supporter Shelley Senterfitt of the non-profit, Georgia Women for Change. “We are happy that it made it over before Crossover Day, but we won’t count our chickens before they hatch. I try not to anticipate anything, but we haven’t heard anyone express concern with it.” Key provisions include an expanded definition of “coercion” in the human trafficking statute (including causing or threatening financial harm), prohibiting defense by blood relation (such as parents exploiting their children) or by marriage (such as a husband “selling” his wife). It significantly increases penalties for human traffickers who target minors. Those arrested for sexual servitude would be treated as victims, not criminals, eligible for victim’s compensation. Children being prostituted would still be arrested, but could use an “affirmative defense,” allowing the child to avoid prostitution charges.
  • HB 314 would allow children in foster care to leave school to attend court hearings in their deprivation cases without being counted absent for part or all of the school day.  Also known as "Jessie's Law," the bill passed the full House last week.  Sponsor Rep. Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta) now awaits assignment to a Senate Committee.
  • The “Good Behavior bill” also known as HB 373 pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges. It passed through the House Monday – just in time to meet this week’s critical deadline. The measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. A motion could only be filed after the child had served a year in custody and could not be re-filed more than once a year.  Backed by Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn), the bill is now headed to the Senate where it will likely be heard by the SJC.
    Rep. Pak
  • HB 471 seeks to require that an objective, written assessment instrument be used to determine whether detention of a child in a Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC) or alternate out-of-home setting is appropriate for a child who has been arrested.  Sources tell this bill is dead mainly because the governor's office has not had time to determine if it will cost the state more money to implement it. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), who still supports the bill and intends to sponsor it again next year. The measure also clarifies that keeping a child in secure detention prior to adjudication and disposition should be done rarely and only if less restrictive options have been determined to be inappropriate.
  • Rep. Donna Sheldon’s (R-Dacula) HB 529 would expand the professionals required to report child abuse or neglect to include  reproductive health clinic staffers. The bill has been referred to the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee.

House Resolutions

  • Rep. Roger Bruce’s (D-Atlanta) HR 9 introduced last month would create a joint study committee to look into the causes and effects of teen violence.  The resolution calls for a joint study committee made up of six appointed members to issue a report including possible legislative recommendations by January 2012.  HR 9 has been referred to the House Children and Youth Committee.


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 and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

“Runaway” Bill Voted Out of Subcommittee

The Runaway Youth Safety Act has passed out of subcommittee amid a continuing debate about the role of shelters and other facilities and how soon they must notify authorities they have given shelter to juveniles.  The Judiciary/Non-Civil Committee must pass the bill, HB 185, before it moves to the House for a full vote.  A hearing by the committee is likely later this week.

Keep checking with for any changes.

Debate Rages On Over Proposed Child Runaway Bill

A spirited debate has prompted members of a Georgia House of Representatives subcommittee to call for a second hearing on legislation that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children without immediate parental notification.

Members of the Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee decided to include Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in a future hearing on the Runaway Youth Safety Act, after scheduled testimony ran over time Tuesday.

“We need to hear from DFCS,” said chairman Rep. Ed Setzler, (R-Acworth) of the next hearing to be planned for HB 185. “We need DFCS to be involved.”

As drafted, the measure would protect facilities that serve runaways from violating two state laws: contributing to the unruliness of a minor and interference of custody of a parent, so long as staffers either contact a parent or file an abuse report within the first 72 hours of contact with the child.

Committee members sipped on Coca-Cola and Dasani water as they peppered the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold),  with questions during the standing-room-only hearing at the state capitol. At issue mainly was the bill’s perceived ambiguity regarding its definition of “service providers” for runaway youth and the fact that parents may not be made aware of their child’s whereabouts for up to three days.

“I’m a big believer in specificity,” Rep. Alex Atwood, (R-St. Simons) told Rep. Weldon at one point.

“I just want to make sure that we’re uncovering what we need to uncover, but not uncovering too much,” added Rep. Setzler. “We need to make sure we’re threading the needle not pushing the door wide open.”


Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children Executive Director Normer Adams, voiced vehement opposition to the measure.

“This legislation is a pedophile’s dream,” says Adams, of the non-profit that provides support to more than 150 organizations that assist abused and neglected children in the state. “This bill would allow for unlicensed facilities and persons with questionable backgrounds to care for children for up to three days without notifying police or other governmental officials about their presence in a facility.”

Adams says he might support the measure authored by Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center, if a provision was made exclusively for licensed facilities. He’s also pushing for the 72-hour notification window to be shortened.

“It is a nightmare for a parent when a child leaves home and parents do not know where the child is,” he says. “This legislation legalizes that nightmare for three days.”

Supporters of the measure, like Kathy Colbenson, chief executive officer of CHRIS Kids, a residential treatment facility for homeless 17-24 year-olds, have said that much time may be needed to contact unresponsive parents or to build up trust with children who may be victims of abuse.

“A lot of times they’re reluctant to stay at the shelter and receive any kind of help because they know that they have to be reported to DFACS,” said Colbenson.


Emory law student Kate Thompson told lawmakers that the current measure is in line with similar measures in other states, including Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. Covenant House Georgia Executive Director Allison Ashe and Barton Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner, all of whom had contributed to the content of the legislation, also addressed the committee. All three said they are willing to work with members and opponents in tweaking parts of the bill.

“This was a good first step, but obviously we need to meet with [the Barton Center] to discuss the concerns that the committee raised,” Ashe said.

Widner, still visibly surprised and concerned by Adams’ comments, said she is optimistic that HB 185 still has a strong future.

“That’s what’s so great about this committee; they’re so  very careful about the legislation that they pass,” she said. “They’re not just stopping the bill they’re asking questions and getting it right. I know that we can work through all of the issues raised, because at the end of the day we all want these kids safely off the streets.”


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 and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.