Not long ago in Georgia, a six-year-old named Salecia Johnson was handcuffed and taken from her elementary school to the local police station. The school chose to do this, instead of sending her to time-out, or home to her parents or to the principal’s office.
Zero tolerance in our schools has become an excuse for a blatant abdication of leadership, fairness, compassion, and common sense. When children are arrested for being children (Salecia apparently had a temper tantrum, something the local police in Millidgeville, Ga., figured out after they all went down to the station) who is impacted, what are the implications for our future, and what can we do?
Increasingly, it is children with disabilities and minorities who are impacted the most. A study released by the Department of Education in March of this year confirmed that African American children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers who are white. More than 70 percent of school-related arrests or those referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. Children with disabilities are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions. Aided by the excuse of zero tolerance and increased police presence in our schools, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have become the unjust solution to routine disciplinary problems.
Our future well being as a nation is at stake. At a policy briefing hosted by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) about over incarceration and its negative impact last year, Matt Cregor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, “The harms of suspension pale in comparison to the harms of arrest. A first-time arrest doubles the chances a student will drop out. A first-time court appearance quadruples them.”
When students drop out, the human resource, what that student could have contributed to society, tends to be lost. The economic impact is devastating. We spend far more to incarcerate than we do to rehabilitate.
I remember being arrested in high school in my junior year and being too embarrassed to return to that school. I’m not saying I should not have been arrested; I failed to appear in court for a drug possession charge. However, the police had a choice, my home address as well as my high school address was on file. The following year, I dropped out of high school totally.
Salecia’s parents Ernest Johnson and Constance Ruff asked the same questions. In a video interview, Salecia’s mother, who only has access to a pre-paid cellphone, said her phone was out of minutes and that is why she did not receive the phone call from the school.
Just as I believe there were alternatives to coming to school and arresting me, Salecia’s parents want to know why the police did not contact someone else on the emergency list, such as her sister Candace. Salecia’s parents report their child is now having nightmares and waking up screaming, they are “coming to get me.” As statistics confirm, school arrests increase dropout rates, increase future incarceration rates and in some cases, like Salecia’s, causes psychological trauma.
Schools as gateways to prisons must be dismantled. Zero tolerance polices impose severe punishments, regardless of circumstances. In Connecticut, a bill has been introduced requiring formal agreements detailing roles and responsibilities for police officers stationed at schools. The bill is an attempt to stem the tide of inappropriate arrests of students.
There are models of public education that have said yes to education, yes to inclusion, and yes to excellence. Andrew Jackson, a public elementary school in Chicago has closed the opportunity gap. Nearly 70 percent of students are Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, black or Hispanic. Yet, there is almost no achievement gap between groups of students in reading and math at Andrew Jackson. The school reports a very different pattern around school suspension rates than the rest of Chicago Public Schools (K-8) – less than one percent of African-American and Hispanic students received an out-of-school suspension.
This is a call to community action. Our legislators, administrators and concerned citizens must work together. Parents cannot protect their children from misguided disciplinary actions alone. Teachers cannot cope with disciplinary challenges alone. The police are ill equipped to adjust their training for a school setting; and we are all subjected to the lethal stereotypes that constantly bombard us falsely, casting people of color as dangerous and violent. Couple this with inflexible polices and our future -- for surely our children are our future -- is in peril. We cannot get so desensitized that we fail to speak up and speak out.
I had been on the bench for a couple years when I met her. Her name was Jade -- she was 12 years old when she appeared in my court. Besides being disrespectful, not following the rules at home, and staying out all night, she was caught giving oral sex to two adult males. Her mother did not know what to do. The police told her to come to juvenile court and file what is known as an unruly petition.
Jade displayed a very disrespectful demeanor. She slouched in the chair, rolled her eyes, and answered my questions with a hateful tone. I could tell she angered everyone in the courtroom. I could tell they were frustrated with me--I didn't get angry and lock her up. Make no mistake -- I was angry. I just didnt show it. I was biting my tongue -- and it hurt.
I just wanted to get her out of the court room and hand her over to the professionals to do their thing – which was to figure out why Jade is such a pain in the ass. Apparently, I was asking too much to hand her off so quickly. While explaining to Jade and her mother the next step in the process, Jade's disposition deteriorated from disrespectful to abusive. I made reference to her friends -- stating that she could not associate with those friends not approved by her mother and the court officer. She gave me that look of defiance -- that "yeah, right” look. It was not that look that started the meltdown. It was my next statement.
"I hope you don’t have contact with these friends, but if you do," and I hesitated --giving that look my children know so well -- "I will bring them into court with their parents and I doubt they are going to like that."
By her reaction, I knew she didn't take a liking to that admonishment. She jumped out of the chair knocking it over behind her. She shouted expletives that would put Linda Blair's character in the movie "The Exorcist" to shame.
I could make out, "You Mother #@$&?#" and "You Son of A #%@&.” The other words were indistinguishable, but I could tell by the expression on her face they were not nice words. Tom, my deputy, ran to her. It was as if she was suddenly possessed by a demon, but without her head turning 180 degrees. Just as Tom was about to take her into custody, I told him to stop. He stopped dead in his tracks with his arms out and about to grab Jade. He looked up to the bench, with this confused look, and said, "But Judge -- she's cursing at you!"
"I know Tom," and hesitated for a moment and said," She's simply saying out loud what everyone else is thinking."
It was as if Jade's wind had been taken from her sails. She stopped her tirade, looked at me for a brief moment with her jaw slightly dropped, and slowly turned and picked up her chair and sat in it -- looking down at her lap. She never said another word. She didn't show any expression.
Don't ask me how I knew she would shut-up -- I didn't. I just knew she wanted to make me mad -- and she did. I didn't want her to know she had pushed my buttons. Sometimes those of us with the authority to lock up kids aren't thinking about appearance when we use detention in anger. The beauty of having this authority is in the discretion not to use it. We demonstrate genuine judicial temperament when we come to appreciate that real power is not in the authority to detain, but in the discretion not to when it hasn't anything to do with serious risk of injury to others as contemplated in most juvenile detention statutes across the country.
Besides, if not for any other reason, it doesn't look flattering for a professional to lose control, especially to a teenager. Let’s not be fooled -- people do talk about us, and behind our backs. It’s not always flattering.
I will confess I did not come to this job with the right attitude. I made some decisions in anger, and I look back and regret them. I would rather have people question my philosophy than my temperment. The former goes to the way we do business -- the latter to our character.
I will also confess that I still struggle with temperamental restraints when it comes to those disrespectful and ungovernable kids. I have a lamenated sign on my bench for my eyes only. It says, "BE NICE." It’s simple, maybe corny, but it’s effective. When I begin to feel that adrenaline going and the anger rising in me, I look at that sign and like Jade -- the wind is taken from my sails.
Speaking of Jade, she went on to be assessed and with the help of intensive services that included multi-systemic therapy for the whole family and individual counseling for Jade, she never returned to court. I remember she was an emotionally troubled child having suffered the trauma of a rape at age 11. It’s important that we keep in mind that many status youth come to us angry – that’s why they make us mad -- and detention is another traumatic event on top of another. We risk making the problem worse as well as the child when placed in the best delinquency training school in America -- the detention center.
In 2009, while presiding over an arraignment docket, a young man was before me for a misdemeanor delinquent act that had he admitted at intake would have been handled informally. Once I told him of the trial date, his mother asked if she could say something.
"Yes Ma'am, what is it?" I answered.
She pointed to a young adult female and said, "This is my daughter. When she heard you were the judge, she asked to come to court to see you. Is it OK if she says something."
I shrugged my shoulders and I am sure with a confused look replied, "Sure."
"Judge," she said, "You may not remember me. It’s been a long time, but I was before you and said some really awful things."
She began to cry and I told her it was OK and that I am listening.
Wiping the tears from her cheeks as the bailiff was handing her the tissues, she said, "I think of you every once and while and what you did -- or should I say didn’t do."
"I didn’t undertand why you didn’t lock me up," she continued saying. "I get it now. Jail wasn’t the place for me."
She told me she graduated high school and went to cosmetology school. She works as a hair stylist.
She ended the description of her progress saying, "Thank you Judge Teske for not getting mad at me."
I came down from the bench and walked up to her. I gave her a hug and said, "I did get mad Jade--but that’s not enough to throw you in jail."
After five years of work, a 243-page overhaul of Georgia's juvenile code passed the state House of Representatives unanimously on Wednesday.
The bill -- endorsed by judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, state agencies and child advocates across Georgia -- now moves to the Georgia Senate.
House Bill 641 creates a broad array of programs for neglected children and for children who leave the foster-care system at age 18; strengthens protections for children in juvenile court; clarifies when the state may remove a child from home or seek to terminate parental rights; and adopts best practices from across the country for handling deprivation and delinquency cases.
"People will quite often address us as elected House members and say, 'Why do you do that? Why do you run for office?" Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), the bill's sponsor, told his House colleagues. The answer, he said: "We like to see good policy being made for the people of Georgia. … This is probably one of the more important pieces of policy legislation you will have before you this year."
A nearly identical version of the bill awaits action by the Senate Rules Committee. One key difference: The Senate version would exempt Georgia's statewide public-defender system from the responsibility to represent youths facing possible incarceration by a juvenile court judge. The House version would preserve that mandate.
Lawmakers also must sort out how to pay for the costs of the new programs and duties, estimated to be as high as $22 million. Next year's proposed state budget includes no money for that purpose and, as a consequence, the effective date of the bill has been pushed back to July 2013.
James and Matthew -- the boys who robbed Henry, a pizza deliveryman, at gun point -- stood in court telling him they were sorry as they wiped the tears from their eyes. With my permission, Henry walked to the bar, reached across and shook the boys’ hands, and said in a soft voice, "I forgive you." Henry also had tears. Despite his plea not to send them to prison, he has accepted their fate -- a fate pretty much accepted in custom and practice -- prison.
A transfer from adult court made the offense a designated felony in juvenile court, making them eligible to serve from one to five years in a youth development campus. These places have razor wire fences. Let’s not mince words: They are prisons.
Henry's plea for a second chance made me think about the impact of incarceration on youth in the United States and in Georgia.
Countless studies have shown that detention is ineffective at treating kids and reducing recidivism; in fact, a number of well-designed studies suggest that correctional placements actually exacerbate criminality. Why should we be surprised? Consider the following facts about our youth facilities across America.
According to a 2008 study, the United States detained children at a rate five times that of other Western nations, despite a violent crime rate only marginally higher than those nations. According to the FBI, only 12 percent of the nearly 150,000 delinquent youth placed in facilities were there because they committed violent crimes. Why do we let our anger get in the way of being smart? When are the adults going to grow up?
Since 1970, systemic violence, abuse and/or excessive use of isolation or restraint have been documented in juvenile facilities of 39 states. In at least 22 states, there is evidence of continued mistreatment since 2000.
Georgia, where my juvenile court is located, is no exception. Investigations are currently unfolding at youth detention centers in the state. We are fortunate to have leadership responding in a transparent fashion -- to get to the truth -- no matter how horrible! This is how we reform juvenile justice in Georgia, or anywhere.
Not only are we mixing non-violent youth with the violent, many of them are documented with mental health disorders including learning and emotional behavior disorders.
One study revealed that the rate of detention was nearly three times that of the general population. Despite the exorbitant daily costs to house these kids, most facilities are ill-prepared to address the needs of many confined youth. It should be no surprise that 30 percent have attempted suicide, 70 percent have seen someone severely injured or killed, and 72 percent had something very bad or terrible happen to them.
In contrast, and the most compelling, is a 2009 analysis of 361 studies that determined that the strongest results are achieved by community programs employing therapeutic counseling, skill building and case management approaches which have worked to reduced recidivism by at least 12 percent.
So I did the unthinkable. I released James and Matthew, but to a program that made their home and school a prison. Inspired by Henry's words, I named it the Second Chance Program.
With the help of the Department of Juvenile Justice and our local System of Care, we quickly constructed an intensive program for high-risk designated felons. James, Matthew and all designated felons chosen for this program are placed under house arrest for up to six months with GPS monitoring. We know where they are at all times.
One of the keys to reducing recidivism is breaking up the delinquent network -- their anti-social peers. The cognitive shift needed for these boys to turn from a delinquent attitude demands a disconnect from delinquent influences.
Without this first step, all the good treatment and good programming is pretty much worthless. Despite today’s technology with GPS tracking, I am perplexed we still use detention -- a more expensive option -- as a default for community protection, especially given the fact that only about 12 percent are incarcerated for violent offenses.
The irony is that we say to ourselves it is needed to get them away from a "bad environment," but yet we send them to a facility full of delinquent kids, the best training school for delinquency.
They attend an evening reporting center each day after school, and over the next year they undergo intensive behavioral training that includes cognitive restructuring, substance abuse counseling, life skills training, job readiness, weekly drug tests and family functional therapy.
They come to court every Tuesday night to make a report and the parents must attend. They are, after all, the key. They too undergo parental counseling to develop skills to manage their child. The first Tuesday of every month they must dress in business attire. After six months they begin the phase down period. After one year, they are transferred to regular probation -- provided they have demonstrated a change in thinking and behavior.
James made it. Matthew did not.
Here's the kicker: If you get revoked, the sentence is five years. Matthew violated his house arrest. The community and the survival of the program require harsh responses to serious violations. These kids are not average probationers subject to traditional graduated sanctions.
James? Well, it’s been more than two years and he is about to graduate high school after having excelled in all classes, joined ROTC, enjoyed most sports and rescued a bus driver from an attack. Now he is set to enter the armed forces this summer.
I haven’t admitted another adult transfer since James and Matthew -- and may never again -- although the other judges have and they are doing very well.
Given what we know about the recidivism rates of kids sent to youth prisons across the country, 50 percent and higher re-offend within two years compared to 32 to 37 percent for similarly situated kids placed in community programs with evidence-based programming.
So far, the Second Chance Program has a 36 percent revocation rate. I said "revocation" not "recidivism." About a third of the revocations did not involve new offenses -- they involved violating house arrest -- public safety is foremost.
It’s still early to make claims of success, but the outcomes are promising. Kids once gangbanging and committing robberies and burglaries are now making honor roll, working, taking SAT tests and college prep classes, and not using drugs.
More promising is that over half of them would have returned from prison to commit a crime, and now it looks like they won't.
An estimated $15 million price tag is attached to the proposed Child Protection and Public Safety Act, sponsored by state Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), whose committee gave the bill a "do-pass" without dissent. Gov. Nathan Deal did not include that cost in the coming year's budget so, Hamrick said, supporters pushed the effective date of the bill back a year -- to July 2013 -- to buy the time to find funding for it.
"We have got to work on that with the House and the governor," Hamrick said. Some government agencies were objecting to taking on new programs that they couldn't pay for, he said, "so now it really seems to be how are we going to fund it."
The bill would modernize and reorganize state laws addressing delinquent and neglected children, giving the state new resources to deal with both groups and with a third -- unruly children, including so-called "status offenders" -- who often fall in between the two. Some status offenders -- whose only offense may be truancy, drinking alcohol or other behavior that is not criminal for an adult -- wind up in state juvenile detention facilities with violent, older offenders despite a federal prohibition.
Hamrick's bill would establish a new classification for juveniles -- Children in Need of Services, or CHINS -- to provide those unruly children with a wide range of services. CHINS kids and their parents would have access to tutoring, counseling, anger management and other mental health services.
The state Department of Human Services has agreed to coordinate those programs, which are estimated to cost $7 million a year, once the money is placed in the state budget.
A second significant cost -- funding for local district attorneys to prosecute offenses in juvenile courts -- could run up to $8 million, Hamrick said. But that's a conservative estimate, he said, and "it may be possibly a lot less than that."
The bill would also establish a mediation procedure for many conflicts now heard in juvenile courts, which could save the state money, he noted.
Hamrick is attempting to defuse money issues for a third agency, the Public Defenders Standards Council, by removing language requiring that it represent teenagers in juvenile courts across Georgia. One estimate said that duty would cost the agency $370,000 a year.
Juvenile defendants will still be entitled to a lawyer but, under the Senate bill, the cost would be borne by local jurisdictions. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), retains that mandate for the public defender council.
Hamrick's bill also drops a provision that would have required "sight and sound separation" in juvenile detention facilities between youth who have only been accused of a crime and those who have been adjudicated and committed to DJJ custody. That requirement would have required costly construction at many youth jails and prisons and, in the words of a senior DJJ official, was considered a "deal-breaker."
Wednesday's vote represented a landmark for many proponents of the bill. Kirsten Widner, lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, choked up a little as she reflected on the committee's support.
"I've been working on this thing for five years," Widner said. "This is the first time it's gotten a vote."
Haley Bonds says she did everything she could think of to protect her 16-year-old daughter from the beatdown she was expecting at a youth jail in Northwest Georgia.
Yet, just 20 minutes after a supervisor assured her Whitney Bonds would be safe, another called Haley to say her daughter was "bleeding out" and being rushed to the emergency room. At the hospital, Haley said, doctors told her Whitney's nose had been "crushed" and she would need corrective surgery and dental work.
Whitney had just told a supervisor that two guards had bribed her and another girl to attack a third girl the night before, according to a written record of the complaint obtained by JJIE. The guards, she charged, threatened to "put out a hit on her" if she told anyone about it.
Her assailant made no mention of the guards' involvement, though. Instead, an incident report prepared by one of those guards says the girl told her that night, "She [Whitney] keep talking sh** and plus she jumped on [the other girl] so I went over there and knocked her ass out."
Whitney had returned to her cellblock and sat down next to a water fountain. A guard allowed another girl to get up for a drink of water, the incident report said, and the girl "started hitting Whitney Bonds in the face."
"She gave her permission to go get water knowing she was going to beat the crap out of my daughter," Whitney's mother said.
Whitney says she remembers little else about the attack, having blacked out after the girl started punching her in the face. "She just stood right in front of me," Whitney said. "The [guards] were right there."
The state Department of Juvenile Justice, which is wrapping up an internal investigation of the Dec. 7 incident, had little to say on the matter last week. "There is no criminal case involving DJJ staff members at this point," spokesman Jim Shuler wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.
Historically, Shuler said, "it's not uncommon to hear allegations of corrections officers instigating violence between residents in any juvenile justice institutional setting." However, no such allegations have been confirmed since the new head of the agency, Gale Buckner, became DJJ's commissioner in November, he said.
Whitney, who is awaiting her day in court for her alleged role with three adults in an armed robbery, spent more than an hour last week talking about life inside the Bob Richards Regional Youth Detention Center near Rome, Ga., and the girls' often tense relationship with the adults guarding them.
The two fights, she said, followed a week of verbal abuse by several guards directed at Whitney and other girls.
Some guards routinely threatened the girls with profanities and racial epithets, calling them "pu*****" and "white bitches," Whitney said.
Sometimes, she said, officers tried to goad the girls into fighting them.
One supervisor threw a cup on water on her and called her a "pu*** ass mother******," Whitney said. Another guard who was present, and a counselor whom she told later, both laughed about it, she said.
Whitney believes she was beaten as retaliation for telling her mother about the guards' role in instigating the fight a day earlier.
The target of the earlier attack had been placed for disciplinary reasons in a classroom where a teacher but no officers were stationed. Two guards offered her and another girl McDonald's hamburgers and a Dr Pepper if they would assault her, she said.
The guards "didn't like her because she had a smart mouth," Whitney said. "They would pick on her and she'd fill out grievance forms."
Whitney acknowledged hitting the girl several times after sneaking up behind her.
"I just pretended to punch her a little bit," she said. "I didn't want to do it in the first place. ... I did it so they wouldn't put a hit on me and I would still get the stuff they said."
Whitney and the second assailant were pulled off in a minute or two, she said, and locked in their cells. After she threatened to tell her mother what happened, one guard taunted her through the cell door, she said, yelling that she'd charge her with terroristic threats and sue her and her family if Whitney did so.
"She said she was going to whup my family [and] whup me," Whitney said. (That guard was later fired, DJJ said, for failing to complete her cadet training.)
Whitney said she confirmed to another officer that night that the guards had put her up to the fight.
The next night, her mother said, Whitney entered the visitation room crying and told her mom what happened. “She said, ‘They're going to jump me. They will do it . ... They're going to hurt me,’” Haley Bonds said.
Haley said she called over a supervising officer so Whitney could tell him about the threats. The officer listened and promised Whitney would be safe.
Leaving the RYDC shortly after 8 p.m., Haley ran into that officer again outside. Haley said she made the officer promise Whitney would be safe.
“He said, ‘I've already taken care of it. I've talked to my officers. Nothing is going to happen to her,’” Bonds said.
At 8:24 p.m., just as Haley arrived at her home in Rome, a sergeant from the RYDC called her. “He said, ‘Miss Bonds, your daughter's bleeding out. ... She's lost a lot of blood.’”
Haley said a state official told her that the guards in question would remain on the job during the investigation, but would have no contact with youths in the facility. Whitney was returned to the RYDC later that night but stayed in a booking room isolated from the other girls.
Four days after the fight, though, Whitney had been returned to her cellblock and two of the same guards were present when Haley came to visit. Whitney recognized a voice coming from the control room that day as a third guard who had threatened her, Whitney said.
Haley called a state DJJ investigator, who immediately arranged to have Whitney transferred to a youth prison in Dalton. The guards were reassigned the next day, DJJ officials say.
Several weeks later, Whitney was fitted for an ankle monitor and released on bond.
Whitney “has been the best child” since then, Haley said. “She gave her testimony at church ... She said she knew God was with her through everything she's been through.”
Some days are rougher, though. "She cried all day yesterday," Haley Bonds said in early February.
Whitney's mother said authorities have repeatedly urged her to file charges against the girl accused in the assault. But she won't.
"I say the adults are the ones responsible for my daughter's beating," Bonds wrote in a Dec. 30 letter to DJJ Commissioner Buckner. "This was pre-meditated and that's where I want justice is with the adults."
Main Photo: Jim Walls
When I entered the Georgia prison system in 1985, blacks made up about 70 percent of the inmate population. That same year, blacks were 30 percent of the population of my home state.
I grew up in a town in south Georgia with a large black population, and I had friends in school who were black. But I had no real consciousness of the inequality that existed in the justice system. In prison, all I had to do was look around.
These rates of adult incarceration are little changed today, as reflected in the Georgia Department of Corrections’ latest statistical report. The state of the juvenile system here is similarly out of balance. For the last several years between 59 and 63 percent of all youth committed to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice have been black, but the latest Census report shows the black population of the state to be a little over 30 percent. Georgia is not alone. Across the country, rates of arrest and incarceration reflect disparity when minority groups are compared to whites.
The W. Haywood Burns Institute released a report that outlines the situation in California. Youth there are more likely to be referred to juvenile court for non-criminal acts, instead of mental health and behavioral treatment, if they are black. Besides these overuses of the system for treatment, black youth, who make up 6 percent of the youth population in California, constitute 75 percent of the juvenile justice population. Even more disturbing, they make up 90 percent of transfers to adult court, where they receive life without parole 18 times more often than white youth.
These numbers bother me. I wonder what they mean for our society, and what we can do to address the problem. Even clarifying what the problems are exactly is maddening.
A lot has been written about racial disparity in the realm of law, but nothing that seems definitive. Historically the justice system has often been used to keep blacks in check. In the South it took the place of the slavery system for many years after the Civil War. Everywhere in the nation it was used disproportionally to keep minorities in their “place.”
It is no secret that blacks whose victims are white receive harsher sentences than whites who victimize blacks. A 2010 report from the Death Penalty Information Center states that the number of white defendants executed for killing blacks was 15. The number of blacks executed for killing whites was 246.
Often poverty is put forward as an explanation, and there is some merit to this. Poorer people usually fare worse in court, and receive harsher sentences, in comparison to wealthier citizens who can afford better representation. But high poverty rates alone do not serve to explain the facts. Per capita blacks have had less income, less education, and have been more likely to be incarcerated for the same crimes when compared to whites, yet even as some social inequalities in education and jobs have been diminished, overrepresentation in the criminal justice system has persisted for blacks in this country.
It seems that even in governmental and academic study of this issue there are no good answers. Searching for statistics that can show clear patterns is made difficult by the way they are presented by the U.S. Justice Department.
A lot of people have blinders on when it comes to this question. I believe in personal responsibility and accountability. Society cannot function long without them, but there exist patterns in our nation that go back to the days of slavery, to the days when blacks were counted as less than human, and to the efforts to maintain this status quo by the dominant society.
This deep structure continues to be played out today, and until this is squarely faced these kinds of discrepancies will continue. It is guaranteed that the solutions that are required will be complex, but eventually we must. That is the only hope that these issues will be addressed.
Georgia's foster children are being over-medicated, often to sedate them or control their behavior rather than treat a medical condition, a new study confirms.
The question is: What should Georgia do about it?
One solution being considered by state legislators calls for oversight of medications given to adjust the mood or behavior of thousands of foster children in Georgia. The bill calls for written standards for the dosages and combinations of psychotropic drugs given to those children, as well as an independent clinical review to assess all such medications and related treatments twice a year.
But some child psychiatrists, worrying about second-guessing and lengthy delays in treatment, told state lawmakers last week that they object to a provision that would require the state's pre-authorization for certain medications or unusual doses. They also cautioned about the consequences of language that would require the informed consent of children 14 and older before taking a new psychotropic drug.
"These medications can be very problematic if stopped abruptly," said Dr. Peter Ash, chairman of child psychology at Emory University School of Medicine. "What happens if an adolescent refuses? ... The reality is we have to care for them nevertheless."
Georgia recently launched a similar pre-authorization process for children on Medicaid, but officials say there's not enough data yet to determine whether there have been inappropriate delays in treatment.
Rep. Ben Watson (R-Savannah), a physician, and other lawmakers worried that state monitoring of prescriptions might discourage psychiatrists from treating foster children. "Is this going to reassure [doctors] in their treatment or be more cumbersome?" Watson asked.
Two witnesses testified last week about their own experiences in Georgia's foster care system and the dangers of inadequate medical oversight.
Giovan Bazan, now 21, said he almost died at 16 when a combination of medications caused him to convulse and vomit. A sedative made it difficult for him to sit up in bed, Bazan said, and he would have suffocated if the staff at his group home hadn't recognized the danger and come to his aid.
Bazan told the state House Health and Human Services Committee that foster parents had used more medications and stronger doses to control his behavior. He said juvenile justice officials also warned that they would not end his probation unless he kept taking his medication.
"Obviously as a youth we have a bit of rebellious spirit," he said, "but that doesn't mean that we are mentally ill."
Mason McFalls, 24, said nearly every child he met in 14 years in foster care was taking psychotropic medications.
"I've seen kids literally shaking from being so wound up on the medication," McFalls said.
Frequently, foster children are treated by a different doctor every time they're moved to a new foster home, authorities say. Those doctors generally do not have access to a child's medical history, so they may diagnose different disorders and prescribe different drugs and treatment.
At Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, Bazan said, "they would prescribe me a different medication even if I was only staying there a week."
Over-medication was the common thread in a draft report on 93 so-called "cold cases" -- children who've spent years shuttling between foster placements without finding a permanent home.
The study found high rates of children taking multiple behavioral medications and frequent use of the drugs for the convenience of caregivers.
"Those expedient solutions ... tend to be the most popular," said Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory's Barton Child Law and Policy Center, which conducted the study.
Many foster children were given multiple medications at the maximum recommended dosage for adults, the study found. Most psychotropic drugs, because of the costs involved, are not tested for effectiveness and optimum doses when prescribed for children.
Sometimes, there was no evidence in the case files to justify the prescriptions, said Dr. Brent Wilson, a child psychiatrist who studied the cold case files for the project.
Some children in the study were taking as many as eight different psychotropic medications, Wilson said. Those multiple prescriptions can make it difficult to determine which one is causing an unwanted side-effect, he said, and the lack of reliable medical histories makes it tough for doctors to know whether a drug is still necessary.
Thirty-two percent of Georgia foster kids were taking psychotropic medications in 2010. Of those, one in three was also prescribed at least one anti-psychotic drug, and nearly 5 percent received at least four psychotropic medications.
Those prescriptions cost Georgia's Medicaid program $7.8 million in 2010, said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), sponsor of the proposed Foster Children's Psychotropic Medication Monitoring Act.
Oliver's bill addresses a federal mandate for states to monitor the use of psychotropic medications among foster children. Her bill does not call for standards for children in Georgia's juvenile justice system, which is not part of the federal mandate, although many children move back and forth between that system and foster care.
Photo: Jim Walls
In 2008, Georgia combined two state offices serving troubled youth in the name of effectiveness and efficiency. Now, an audit says the newly created office has resulted in little savings on overhead while managing to serve only about one-third as many children.
The analysis found “no evidence” that the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF) is more efficient, state Auditor Russell Hinton said. Administrative costs remain about the same as before the merger, he reported, and a new grant-making philosophy built in another layer of bureaucracy that may well cost taxpayers more.
Hinton also found that the office was carrying over unspent money from one year to another, rather than returning it to the state treasury as required by law. Legislative budget-writers last year wound up cutting the office's appropriation by more than $1 million to make up the difference.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who questioned the office's spending a year ago, said Tuesday she was pleased with Hinton's findings.
"The audit confirmed my concerns about the way in which funds were blended and being used," Oliver said. "I'm happy that under new direction and new leadership there seems to be more serious attention to these accounting issues."
Jen Bennecke, the previous director of GOCF, tangled with legislators a year ago over the office's spending practices. She stepped down in August, making way for the new director, Katie Jo Ballard.
Ballard has worked to straighten out accounting discrepancies and restore lawmakers' confidence, Oliver and Rep. Penny Houston (R-Nashville) both stressed.
"It's like a breath of fresh air down there," Houston said.
Ballard could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue created the Office for Children and Families in 2008 by combining the Children's Trust Fund Commission, which issued grants to reduce child abuse and neglect, and the Children and Youth Coordinating Council, which funded community-based programs trying to reduce juvenile delinquency. Merging the two, the thinking was, would eliminate duplication of effort and make more money available for the programs.
It didn't quite work out that way. The merged offices saved much less on salaries than had been projected, Hinton said, and spent more on programs that don't directly serve children, such as buying computers, building websites, creating media campaigns and evaluating programs. Those annual costs climbed from $3.5 million to $4.6 million in just two years.
Auditors also questioned the cost of the office's move in 2009 to a so-called "system-of-care" model for funding services for children in need.
Under system of care, public and private agencies work as a team to come up with an array of services -- tutoring, counseling, mental health or child welfare, for example -- for targeted kids. Communities choose a lead agency to administer the grant money and subcontract with other agencies to provide services.
Coordinating all those players costs money. Overall, the audit found, recipients spent 42 cents of every grant dollar on overhead, including evaluating the funded programs. Those costs ran as high as 78 percent for one county's programs.
And while the programs cost more to run, they served far fewer people. The office in 2010 reported serving about 6,200 families, down from 18,800 the year before, and 29,000 individuals (down from 86,000).
While the GOCF staff pointed out various improvements and additional activities," the audit said, "these activities could not be tied to any changes in effectiveness."
Even though the agency's programs are reaching fewer children, auditors said staffers told them that "the quality of the services provided has increased. Their expectation is that the grant providers will create a change in children's lives that will lead to better outcomes and children will not have a need for services after being served through a GOCF-funded program."
Questions about the office's spending practices cropped up after newly-elected Gov. Nathan Deal pushed in 2011 to have it take control of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a public-private collaboration and its $8 million budget.
"We wanted to leave it where it was because some people just don’t want to give donations to the government," said Houston, who was then chair of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing programs under the governor's office.
"That really started the fuss, I guess," Houston said. "We did not want it moved and we held our ground."
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The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is pulling together its own findings after unannounced visits to Augusta and the state’s 25 other jails and prisons for youth offenders in recent weeks, DJJ Commissioner Gale Buckner said Thursday. Those findings -- which have already led to disciplinary actions and policy changes -- have been shared with leadership at each institution and should be consolidated into a single report, also by mid-February, for Gov. Nathan Deal and DJJ board members.
“We’ve had a lot of personnel changes at Augusta, and it’s not over,”
Buckner told the DJJ board during a meeting of its members on Thursday.
At least a dozen staff members have already lost their jobs at Augusta in the aftermath of the Nov. 7 beating death of Jade Holder, 19, in his cell at the facility. One employee, Marlon McCreary, was fired for allegedly leaving cell doors unlocked in the unit, which allowed the fatal assault to occur.
A 17-year-old youth has been charged with murder in the attack.
Firings of two more correctional officers at Augusta were announced Wednesday. Kenneth Payton was terminated for allegedly initiating a physical altercation with a youth in DJJ custody, and Dondale Stroman was dismissed for alleged improper use of physical intervention techniques.
Twenty GBI agents descended on the Augusta campus Tuesday, starting at 5 a.m., to re-interview staff members one last time and allow workers to volunteer any additional information they might have.
Contraband taken during the announced visits was on display today at DJJ’s board meeting. Seized items included cigarettes, drugs, DVDs, homemade weapons and gang-associated writings and drawings.
One hand-written sheet looked much like a rudimentary business plan for selling cigarettes inside a youth prison, including statistics on the percentage of boys and girls who smoke and estimates of unit sales (5,760 packs per year) and projected revenue over five years ($90,000) and 10 years ($180,000).
DJJ this week advertised for applicants for the director’s job at the Augusta YDC and hopes to hire one by March 2, when interim director Gary Jones returns to his job as police chief of Sardis, Ga.
Gov. Deal appointed Jones to run the Augusta YDC for 90 days in early December when former director John Brady was fired.
Photos: Jim Walls