Michelle Barclay and Patricia Buonodono On Danielle’s Story

*Danielle was born HIV positive. Her mother, while constantly in and out of jail, abused alcohol while pregnant with her. Her father couldn’t manage to care for her, often forgetting to give her the HIV medications she needed to survive.

She was a year old when she entered foster care.

Michelle Barclay

Her father had finally given up, dropping her off at an AIDS clinic, saying he couldn’t handle it any more. He did, however, continue to have unsupervised visitation with her – until evidence emerged that he sexually molested her, something he was never prosecuted for.

This explained why Danielle had begun acting out sexually and in other ways.  She was moved from foster home to foster home because of her temper tantrums and other extreme behaviors, starting at age three.

Close to age four, Danielle finally went to a foster home where she seemed to fit in. About the time she turned eight, when the family was close to adopting her, it was discovered that she had been physically abused in that home for years. She had been burned, hit, cut and had her head held under water. Of course, the adoption did not proceed, but again the foster parents were not properly investigated nor prosecuted for the alleged abuse.

From the foster home, Danielle went to a psychiatric hospital and from there spent the next five years of her life in long-term residential treatment facilities where she was prescribed an array of psychotropic drugs that heavily sedated her.

Today, she has AIDS because she never received proper medication to treat HIV.

Danielle struggles with the severe consequences of the disease as well as emotions brought on by her neglect and abuse.

When she was 13, Danielle’s case was included in the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Cold Case Project. (This multi-year effort, conducted by the Court’s Committee on Justice for Children, aims to review more than 200 cases per year of children who appear to be “stuck in foster care.”) Her case was reviewed in depth, and a network of caring individuals has emerged to look for ways for her to have a normal life, outside an institution. In time, a movement began to get Danielle to a permanent home.

Patricia Buonodono
Patricia Buonodono

Despite her circumstances, Danielle was found to be bright and full of life.  It was soon learned that Danielle absolutely adored horses! Volunteers were sought to transport her to a farm outside Atlanta where she could spend time around horses, care for them and, eventually, ride them.

She grew to look forward to having time with the horses on a regular basis.  During this time, Danielle’s very committed case manager was able to place her in the home of a caring family. This family came to appreciate Danielle for who she is and wanted to help her live a normal life.

Weaning from multiple drugs also slowly began.

But – like a “normal” teenager – when she started to act out, Danielle had to be told there were consequences for her behavior.

Weekend visits to the horse farm proved to be the incentive for Danielle’s work to control her behavior and try to regulate her emotions. Acting out in destructive ways meant she would not be able to go to the horse farm. This helped her learn to control her anger so she could function more easily as a part of a family.

Danielle has now been adopted by this wonderful foster family. After 12 years of being essentially alone, Danielle now has a forever family, a big network of volunteers and a hobby she loves: riding horses.


*Danielle is not her real name, but her story is real. This teen was part of a statewide review called the Cold Case Project. The Cold Case Project is being conducted in full partnership and transparency with the Division of Family and Children Services .  The project is made possible by the Casey Family Program funds.

Michelle Barclay: Cold Case Teen Finds Forever Family Just in Time for Christmas

As I drove up to Goshen Valley Boy’s Ranch in the pouring rain with Sue Badeau from Casey Family Programs in the seat beside me at 8pm, I had moments of doubt.

I asked James’ case manager earlier in the day, “Is James OK with seeing us tonight?”

“About as excited as a 15 year old boy can be,” she answered, which did not comfort me.

When we arrived at the lovely but lonely set of houses set in a wide expanse of woods and views, we were informed that James* had gone to bed, disappointed that we had failed to show way past the agreed upon hour.   But he did come out and joined us for a two-hour conversation about his permanency goals.

We had gotten permission for Sue to do permanency counseling with James.  His foster care file starting at age 4 was full of deeply disappointing encounters with adults.  Too many had rejected him.  His file also said that he had told his DFCS caseworkers to leave him alone, that he would ‘disrupt’ if he was pushed into an adoptive home.  He wanted to “age out”.

His wishes appeared to be honored, but a review of his file seemed to show that while James had bad matches with adults, he still was making good grades, was very smart and had few behavior problems.  A nagging question kept bothering us, why couldn’t our child welfare system find this young man a forever family?

In Sue’s counseling interview, James turned out to be direct and engaging, very adult.  He had lots of detailed plans for his future.  At first, he held on to his assertion of “leave me alone” but Sue pushed him without challenging him.  She said, OK, we just want to make sure.

What about holidays?

They don’t matter.

What about an inheritance?

Not important.

What about grandparents for your future children?

His face softened.

Finally, after a lot of frank conversation, he yielded.  “I would love a family.” he said, “I just don’t believe it will happen for me.”

Sue very importantly acknowledged that his file indicated that the system had been careless with him as a child.  But, she said, you are older now and can play a bigger role in choosing your new family.  I want you to treat it like dating. Take your time, meet a number of families, choose carefully.  There are families who really like teenagers, she assured him.  We can work with people who can find them.

We ended with promises to try anew.  I finally spoke and asked if James knew the attorney assigned to his case.  He didn’t think he did, he wasn’t sure.  I then asked if he was going to court regularly and he said no.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had been to court.

“What do they do in the court hearings?,” he asked me.

“The court makes decisions about your life”, I answered.

“Then I should be there, right? I’m going to ask about that right away”.

Our meeting with James took place in November 2009.  In November, 2010, James was adopted by a new family that he chose with help of his Court Appointed Special Advocate and his case manager.  John Blend, founder of the Goshen Valley Boy's Ranch said, “this Christmas with the adoption final in November, James is doing wonderfully in his new family. As now the oldest child in the family, he is providing leadership and perspective to his much loved brothers, while building trust and understanding with his much loving parents. "

Last month, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, a former foster child for 9 years before being adopted as a teenager, spoke at our recent legal conference. In her closing message to the audience she said, "find one child stuck in the foster care system and help them move out.  Don’t give up."

What a great charge for all of us for 2011.

*James is not his real name, but his story is real. This teen was part of a statewide review called the Cold Case Project that reviewed 214 cases of children who appeared “stuck in foster care”.  This project was done by the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Justice for Children, in full partnership and transparency with the Division of Family and Children Services and the Office of the Child Advocate, and is currently paid for with Casey Family Program funds.


Michelle Barclay is director of the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children at the Administrative Office of the Courts.  Michelle and Andy Barclay founded and endowed the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic in partnership with the Emory University School of Law.

Michelle Barclay: Reflecting on Being Thankful

I sat in the Fulton County Juvenile Court audience on Saturday, November 20th , with my son and my husband, watching the joyful and moving ceremony of 23 families who were celebrating their adoptions on National Adoption Day . Afterward, I thought about my earlier conversation this past week remembering Fulton’s Terrell Peterson who suffered and died at the age of 5 when he should have been protected by our child welfare system and adopted by a loving family. These two events might seem like they are far apart but they are linked in my mind because November is also the 10 year anniversary of Terrell’s picture on the cover of Time Magazine with the title of “The Shame of Foster Care."

Terrell’s tragic case deeply affected many people. For my family, Terrell was the catalyst of working with Emory University School of Law to create the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic , for others it was the call to become foster parents , CASAs or mentors. Terrell sparked the Kenny A class action lawsuit and it was the background for Georgia’s first Child and Family Services Review.

Much has changed for the better in the past 10 years in our state’s child welfare system. Last week, Governor Perdue received a letter from the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF)  which praised our state for its improvement efforts on safety, permanency and well-being work. This letter is much different than the letter sent by ACF in 2006 fining our state $4.2 million for our failure to even work on promised improvements. Today, the child welfare caseloads are lower, safety measures show improvement, children move through the system more quickly and are less likely to come back into care, and fewer children are aging out of care without finding permanency. We didn’t know any of these measures 10 years ago. For the most part, our measuring started in 2000.

On December 2, 2010, Georgia DFCS will be released by ACF from the “Program Improvement Plan " having substantially complied with the plan and being able to prove it. This release also means that the state will not have to pay a pending 8.6 million dollar fine. This release from both the plan and the fine will receive little fanfare.  In a way that is appropriate, because, while we are moving in the right direction, there is still so much to be done to improve the system charged to protect children in fragile families.

However, I am thankful for where we are today.


Michelle Barclay is director of the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children at the Administrative Office of the Courts.  Michelle and Andy Barclay founded and endowed the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic in partnership with the Emory University School of Law.

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.