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Youth Justice Barbecue Celebrates Juvenile Code Rewrite Progress

Express yourselfAdvocates, youth and members of the public gathered this weekend at Exchange Park in Decatur, Ga. to celebrate a year of progress toward juvenile code reform in Georgia.

VOX Teen Communications hosted the barbecue along with a coalition of youth-focused non-profits that have concentrated on making proposed changes to Georgia’s Juvenile Code a reality. JUSTGeorgia, EmpowerMEnt, the Sapelo Foundation and VOX Teen Communications have formed a mesh of alliances to give youth a voice in matters that affect them and advocate for the first changes in the Children’s Code in more than four decades.

An initiative started by Giovan Bazan and Octavia Fugerson at VOX Teen Communications more than a year ago sought to collect the voices of youth from around the state who were directly affected by the juvenile or foster care systems. The series generated such a positive response it was pursued by EmpowerMEnt and spearheaded by Bazan and other youth leaders after the founders aged-out of work at VOX.

The goal is to present the voices of Georgia’s youth to state lawmakers as they take up the juvenile code rewrite in 2012. While the individual stories are powerful, EmpowerMEnt staffers hope delivering them in a cohesive package will be enough of a jolt to spur the first rewrite since 1971.

VOX – Atlanta’s only city-wide newspaper created by teens for teens – doesn’t advocate for specific issues, but focuses on giving teens an outlet to express themselves about issues that concern them.

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Governor Deal, Lawmakers Commit To Juvenile Code Rewrite Vote In 2012

Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — will likely be ready for a vote in the next legislative session thanks to support from Gov. Nathan Deal and some in the Georgia House and Senate leadership, according to two non-profits involved in the drafting of the legislation.

“The time has come for us to rethink how our state is responding to children who have found themselves in trouble with the law,” said Gov. Deal in a news release.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Representatives from the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and Voices for Georgia’s Children, said, this week that the Act, Senate Bill 127, received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” Voices lists the legislation's current status as "in the Senate Judiciary Committee" with "general support from the Governor's office as well as the office of the Speaker."

“From the beginning, this process has been a great example of how to build good, thoughtful and effective legislation,” said sponsor Senator Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). “We have had buy-in from all the players: from the courts to the prosecutors, defense attorneys, service providers, youth and families; pretty much every interested party.”

JUSTGeorgia, a coalition that includes Voices and Barton along with non-profit Georgia Appleseed, has led the rewrite effort as a vehicle to improve Georgia’s juvenile laws and the underlying social service systems. Barton’s Policy Director Kirsten Widner and Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney contend that the rewrite is the culmination of more than four years of research and consensus building to solve dilemmas faced by children, families, courts, detention facilities and taxpayers. SB 127, they said, is based on data-driven “best practices,” with an eye to timeliness and fiscal responsibility.

Governor Deal expressed support for dramatic criminal justice system reform at a news conference earlier this year.

It is unclear which specific Georgia Senators or Representatives have expressed support in readying the measure for the 2012 session, but Gov. Deal’s support is clear. A former juvenile court judge, he told JJIE.org earlier this year that juvenile justice should be a component of his new bi-partisan effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. “I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal said after a February news conference announcing the initiative at the state capitol. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.” And in a meeting with some Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members, Deal stated that he is willing to reassess laws that require or allow children to be prosecuted as adults and serve their time in adult prisons.

SB 127 would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into 12 articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as dependency (now referred to as deprivation), termination of parental rights and delinquency. New provisions would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear.
The process of rewriting the code actually began in 2004 as a proposal by the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation.  Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready for the public in 2008.  In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. In 2006, the Brunswick-based Sapelo Foundation pulled together the JUSTGeorgia organizations, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

SB 127 had a prior life as SB 292 when it was introduced in the Georgia Senate in 2009, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. It was reintroduced this session and nicknamed the “Children’s Code Rewrite” by local child advocacy groups.

Some of the many key changes in the drafts from SB 292 to SB 127 include:

  • “Deprivation” cases, those involving children who have been taken under the court’s protection due to abuse or neglect, are referred to as “dependency” cases, in line with the terminology used in the 49 other states.
  • The age at which a child could be held to have committed a designated felony is lowered from 14 to 13.
  • “Smash and Grab” burglaries are added to the list of designated felonies as a result of HB 1104.
  • First time minor weapons at school infractions are excluded from the definition of designated felony as a result of SB 299.
  • There is more flexibility in the system of services that the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is required to provide for all eligible children.
  • The definition of emotional abuse was updated to include significant risk of harm in addition to actual harm.
  • The definition of children in need of services (CHINS) was updated by:

o   Adding cross references for truancy and runaway provisions, and

o   Eliminating underage sex as grounds for alleging that a child is in need of services.

  • The definition of dependent child has been clarified to require not only that the child has been abused and neglected, but is also in need of the protection of the court.

Since the Act was first introduced in April 2009, there have been 11 public hearings to educate the legislature and the public about the proposed changes, as well as numerous stakeholder meetings to resolve those issues where disagreement existed.

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. 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.

Children Fighting Deportation

Raphael was just seven years old when his mother brought him from Mexico to Gainesville, Georgia for a good education and better opportunities.  But by the time he was 16 his mother was arrested for drugs and deported. He dropped out of school and was working in a factory to support himself and his sister. Because he was brought here illegally, he constantly faced the threat of deportation to a country he knew only as a little boy.

Now his mother’s dream for her children is about to be fulfilled.

The Division of Family and Children Services learned of his situation and he was referred to Catholic Charities for legal help. At 18, he’s on track to be declared a Special Immigrant Juvenile, enabling him to live in the United States legally for 10 years with the possibility of repeated renewals as a lawful permanent resident or naturalization as a citizen. His sister already has the designation.

The status is available to qualified undocumented immigrants under 21 who have no parental support in the United States and who should not return home as determined by a judge.

Asked in a telephone interview what is good about receiving the special status, Raphael, who asked us not to use his real name, had a simple answer: “Everything.”

Catholic Charities handles a vast majority of the petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) in Georgia and five other Southeastern states. Rebeca Salmon, the lawyer with Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services who specializes in work with juveniles, estimates that her office received SIJS for about 150 children and teenagers in 2009.

As emotions rise and rhetoric flies about immigration in the current political climate, Salmon works steadily on behalf of a small segment of the immigrant community she sees as the most vulnerable. She hears stories of juvenile immigrants at the rate of about 200 a month. Of the 200, “we might take in 120,” she says. Of those, only about 20 will qualify for SIJS. Salmon’s track record (“knock on wood,” she says) is 100 percent because she makes sure clients are qualified before she applies.

“My understanding is that if the status is requested and denied, the child is not better off,” says Elise Shore, legal consultant to the Georgia-based Sapelo Foundation and author of the foundation’s report, “Immigration Enforcement and Its Impact on Latino Children in the State of Georgia,”’ released June 22. “A lot of children don’t come to the attention of the system, or if they do it may be too late.”

Some Special Immigrant Juveniles are brought here by parents who are later deported, imprisoned or voluntarily return to their home countries. Some are removed from their homes because of abuse. Some are orphaned. And some come to the United States on their own looking for a parent or another relative.

Every story is different, Salmon says, and each one is filled with its own drama.

  • One young woman, now a high school student in Gwinnett County, was riding with her family in Colombia when a car bomb killed her father. Her traumatized mother fled with her to the United States but soon returned home without her daughter. Salmon used newspaper articles about the bombing as evidence in the girl’s case.
  • A Guatemalan veterinary student at the University of Georgia was left in the United States with a cousin when he was one year old. At 20, he learned he was illegal and in danger of deportation.
  • An 11-year-old boy made his way alone from El Salvador to find his uncle after his mother was tortured and killed by a gang and his father was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. His uncle took him in. He was thrust into the legal system when police picked him up as he climbed through the window of the uncle’s house after getting out of school early.

Many children come looking for parents they never find. Often parents come, legally or illegally, from impoverished areas to find jobs so that they can send money home. Mothers may leave their children with family members in the home country. Unfortunately, Salmon says, after long absences the parents may feel less committed to the family in their home country and may even establish a new family here. Meanwhile, their children back home are dreaming of a reunion.

“I can’t tell you,” Salmon says, “how many kids decide one day, ‘I’m going to go to the United States’ and they get on a bus and head north—because they know the United States is north—with no extra clothes, no walking shoes, no food, no money, no plan.”

They may spend weeks or even months begging, doing odd jobs or selling their bodies, she says. “The best thing that can happen to these kids is that they’re caught at the border,” she says, “because then they’re taken to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, given food, given water, given medical care.”

Officials assess the situation and begin looking for family members of the child in the United States, but that can be hard. Parents may have common names and the children may know only the state where they once lived —if that. Sometimes officials find a distant family member or friend who is willing to become the child’s guardian. A child who meets other requirements may then apply for SIJS.

Some cases that tug hardest at Salmon’s heart involve kids who come seeking a mother or father and actually locate their parents. A child living with a parent doesn’t qualify for SIJS and parents with temporary protective status can’t sponsor their children. In many of those cases, Salmon says, the best she can do is help the child get back to the home country voluntarily to avoid legal deportation and the 10-year ban on returning that comes with it.

Juveniles come to Catholic Charities through courts, social workers, school counselors, government agencies, private immigration and refugee organizations, and foundations. “And immigrants talk,” Salmon says. “If I have a client, they’re going to tell ten people, and they’re going to tell ten people.”

Part of her job is educating workers in social agencies, schools and juvenile courts, “anyone who’ll stand still long enough,” she says, about the services for undocumented immigrant juveniles.

Once Salmon determines that a child is a good candidate for SIJS, the first major step is to have the child declared “deprived” in Georgia’s legal terms, meaning that the child is in Georgia with no parent or legal guardian. A juvenile court judge must also determine that because of political conditions or family situation, returning to the home country is not in the child’s best interest. Although under federal law SIJS can be granted to age 21, juvenile court in Georgia has jurisdiction in deprivation cases only to age 18.

Armed with the juvenile judge’s order, lawyers can approach immigration court to request relief from deportation while pursuing legal status. Then, the petition for SIJS is filed. Since the end of 2008, federal law requires a ruling on such petitions within six months.

Because SIJS cases span state and federal courts and often involve interaction with several agencies, and because children usually don’t have money for lawyers, few private attorneys undertake SIJS cases, Salmon says. Catholic Charities does have relationships with lawyers in other states around the Southeast who handle state court appearances there, while Salmon does the immigration petitions.

Salmon holds her young clients to a high standard. In addition to the official requirements laid out by the law, she insists they go to school, stay out of trouble, and learn English.

Even with SIJS, she says, conviction of multiple or serious crimes can result in deportation. “I’ve told kids who come in here all slouchy and wanting to be all gangstery, I really can’t help you,” she says. “It’s going to do you no service to get you immigration status to work in this country and live in this country if you’re not going to assimilate and function in this country. . . . That’s not a good use of my time or my resources.”

Salmon says she’s had little opposition from anti-immigrant groups for her work. “We only do valid cases,” she says, “and who wants to kid-bash?” She says Atlanta is “not very immigrant-friendly, but when you start telling people stories about real people, it’s not just immigration any more. It’s a real person’s life.”

She tries to make sure many of those stories have happy endings. Looking around her cramped, no-frills office, she says she can pull out any file and say, “I changed this kid’s life. That’s awesome.”

And there’s always more to do. On the wall above her computer is the list of cases in the works by birthday. She always knows who’s nearing 18 and in risk that time will run out.

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Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts

GA Children Trapped by Immigration Debate

While the battle over immigration plays out across the country, children of immigrants in Georgia face fear, anxiety and stress-related health problems, according to a report from the Sapelo Foundation.  Children who are U.S. citizens by birth, are getting separated from their families more often as local police agencies arrest illegal immigrants under the expanding 287 (g) program.  The study also found women and children  who are victims of assault and domestic abuse are afraid to call police because they fear getting deported.  In Immigration Enforcement and its Impact on Latino Children in the State of Georgia, author Elise Shore spells out long-term, traumatic consequences for children.   Among the recommendations:

  • Prohibit checkpoints and road blocks near schools, churches and day care centers
  • Local police should adopt ICE humanitarian guidelines for sole caregivers
  • The foster care system needs bilingual and bicultural workers to understand the needs of immigrants

Long road to new Juvenile Code

The next session of the Georgia General Assembly is months away but advocates are busy polishing a major bill that could affect children and their families across the state. In fact, they’ve been working on this legislation—a complete revamp of the state’s juvenile code—since 2004.

A new code, the first in four decades, was introduced in 2009 as The Child Protection and Public Safety Act but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. To be considered in the term that begins next January, it must be reintroduced.   Its supporters want to make sure it’s in good shape.  “Our goal is to work through the 2009 bill as a draft,” said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University, “and to have an edited version for the next legislative session.”

“We’re going to take the opportunity to make some technical changes and changes all the stakeholders can agree to,” said Mindy Binderman, director of government affairs and advocacy of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a policy advocacy group.

A hearing on the proposed code is set for June 28 at the Capitol.  More meetings and hearings are expected over the summer.

The legislation in the works would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into twelve articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as deprivation, termination of parental rights, and delinquency. New provisions would substantially change how some cases are handled.   Among dozens of proposed changes are these:

  • A requirement known in shorthand as one judge/one child would provide that, whenever possible, the same judge would handle all cases involving a child, whether deprivation or delinquency.
  • Judges could sentence children guilty of designated felonies, such as carjacking or aggravated assault, to as little as six months of restrictive custody instead of a minimum of 12 months, giving them more flexibility.
  • The burden of proving that a child is competent to be tried would fall on the state, rather than requiring the child to prove incompetence.
  • Status offenders—juveniles who commit offenses such as running away or truancy that are considered crimes only for juveniles, not adults—would fall under the new category of Children in Need of Services. Emphasis would be on getting to the cause of the problem rather than on punishment.

Under the proposed code revision, a multi-disciplinary team would work with the child’s family under the presumption that children don’t run away unless something is wrong at home, and aren’t chronically truant if school is going well.  “It’s looking at the child in context,” said Widner. “How can we help this child be more successful?”

Some provisions have already changed in a process that began six years ago when the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, asked for a rewrite of the juvenile code.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation.  Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready to meet its public in 2008.   In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code.

And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.   Through Georgia Appleseed, lawyers from some of the state’s top firms canvassed Georgia’s ten judicial districts, interviewing hundreds of “stakeholders,” from judges to juvenile delinquents and their victims. The results were reported in “Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code,” released by Georgia Appleseed in November, 2008.

“We found a huge consensus that the code is broken and needed to be fixed,” said Widner of the Barton Center, “and some consensus about how to fix it but not as much.”

The research, and later feedback on the model code, came into play in writing the legislation that became Senate Bill 292, introduced by Senator Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton) and 23 co-sponsors in April, 2009.  To increase chances for a smooth passage, some provisions were dropped or altered between the model code and the senate bill.   The model code, for instance, said all cases involving children 13 to 17 years old would start in juvenile court—even those involving the so-called “seven deadly sins,”  felonies that now automatically go to superior court—although cases could be transferred to superior court.   Critics expressed concern that the move would mean being softer on serious crime.  “That was probably one of the most hotly discussed reforms of the model code,” Widner said.  The provision was removed.   “Leaving it in at this time might have killed the bill,” she said.

Some widely supported changes could be hard to implement because of increased costs at a time when the state budget is shrinking because of reduced revenues.  Advocates have already made some tough choices.

One provision said a child would be considered a juvenile in delinquency matters to age 18—up from 17 in the current code. The change would have brought delinquency law into line with deprivation law, which covers children to age 18.  But the age in the senate bill was left at 17 because of concerns that the juvenile justice system would be unable to handle the potential influx of older offenders.  “We very much at JUSTGeorgia believe in that change,” said Widner, “but it’s an expensive change. Even though the long-term cost would probably be significantly lower because it would cut down recidivism, it would require a shift of funds to juvenile court.”

In a 2008 response to the model code, a representative of the state Department of Juvenile Justice estimated that adding 17-year-olds would increase the population of juvenile offenders by as much as 30 percent, at a cost of $83- to $124 million a year. Capital costs would also be incurred to add space to juvenile facilities, the department’s response said.   “We didn’t disagree philosophically with the idea,” said Rob Rosenbloom of the Department of Juvenile Justice. “We just let people know what the budgetary impact would be.”

One controversial proposal was modified in the hope of picking up support.  Under the model code, a child could not waive the right to an attorney. The Senate bill, intended as a compromise, would allow a child to turn down representation—but only after talking to a lawyer.   Still the provision raises concerns.  “I think a child’s having an attorney is always a good thing,” said Judge Bryant Henry.  Henry is President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia. “An attorney is an independent party who can assess what’s going on. But what if the parents don’t want to hire an attorney? . . .One of the practical effects of that is going to be the responsibility that’s going to impose on the public defender’s office. It’s a good idea, but it’s going to have some financial ramifications.”

The JUSTGeorgia team is proud of the way the proposed rewritten code is being handled, although the process is slow and sometimes messy.    “The whole concept was to get some consensus among stakeholders that changes should be made, and what those changes were, before the bill was introduced,” said Binderman. “We continually meet with stakeholders of different opinions to get their buy-in.”

Expected heavy turnover under the gold dome next session will present advocates of the new code with yet another challenge.    “While we’re optimistic,” said Binderman, “we know we have a big road ahead just to keep educating legislators about the change.”

Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts

Read Senate Bill 292:  The Child Protection and Public Safety Act

Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code