Atlanta County Quickens Reform of Legal Representation for Kids in Foster Care

ATLANTA, GA — Fulton County (metro Atlanta) has significantly sped its progress toward completing a groundbreaking, court-ordered effort spurred by Children’s Rights to reform its system of legal representation for abused and neglected children in juvenile court, according to a progress report filed today — and the end of federal court oversight may be within reach.

According to the report (PDF), the third issued by the independent monitor appointed by the U.S. District Court in Atlanta to track the county’s progress, dramatic improvements in the Fulton County Child Attorney Office between December 2008 and September 2009 have resulted in smaller and more manageable caseloads for child attorneys, increased contact between the attorneys and the children they are assigned to represent, and greatly enhanced representation for children in juvenile court.

When Children’s Rights launched a class action to reform the Atlanta child welfare system in 2002, Fulton County had only four child attorneys, each carrying caseloads of as many as 500 children. As a result, children facing life-altering juvenile court decisions — about where they would live and whether they could be returned home to their parents or freed for adoption — generally did not meet the attorneys assigned to represent them before their court dates, and the quality of representation was exceedingly poor.

As of September 30, 2009, the county had 16 attorneys — plus paralegals, investigators, social workers, and administrative staff. Caseloads are now consistently smaller than 100 children per attorney (and smaller than 80 for all but one lawyer), and the attorneys are receiving high marks from the court-appointed monitor for the effectiveness of the counsel they provide.

If Fulton County remains in compliance with the court order requiring these reforms for eighteen continuous months, it may petition to exit court oversight. (Neighboring DeKalb County, which was also the target of legal action by Children’s Rights on these issues, successfully completed a similar reform effort and exited court oversight in October 2008.)

“This reform effort is transforming the legal representation provided to Atlanta’s abused and neglected children, ensuring that their voices are heard loud and clear on decisions that will profoundly affect their lives,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “There is still more work to be done, and Children’s Rights will continue to ensure that Fulton County makes all the improvements required under the federal court order, but this is great progress that deserves to be commended.”

Children’s Rights and attorneys at the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore LLP filed the class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue in 2002 on behalf of the approximately 3,000 children in the custody of the state-run Atlanta child welfare system, seeking widespread reforms. In an unprecedented 2005 decision, the federal judge in the case ruled that all children have a constitutional right to zealous and effective legal representation throughout their time in foster care.

Under a court-enforceable settlement negotiated by Children’s Rights and county officials, Fulton County has established a Child Attorney’s Office independent of the juvenile courts, expanded its staff, strengthened its resources and operations, and lowered caseloads significantly. A workload study required by the settlement and conducted in 2007 recommended caseloads no larger than 80 children per attorney — a target that Fulton County has met for all but one of its staff.

Today’s report cites a few areas in which further improvement is needed in the quality of the representation provided to children by their attorneys. The attorneys must advocate more strenuously, the report says, for reasonable efforts by the state Department of Family and Children Services to keep children safely at home with their parents rather than placing them in foster care. Once children are in foster care, the report says, the attorneys must strengthen their advocacy for regular visits between the children and their parents and siblings, stability in their foster care placements, and other actions critical to moving children as quickly as possible out of foster care and into permanent homes.

Additionally, the report notes several problems in DFCS’s practices with respect to juvenile court hearings that may hinder the child attorneys’ ability to carry out their responsibilities. The state agency has been inconsistent providing attorneys with important documents related to children’s cases, including the child attorneys in meetings about the children they represent, and bringing the children to juvenile court hearings.

The juvenile court itself contributes further to delays in children’s cases, the report says, by assigning individual cases to more than one judge, failing to consistently enforce children’s right to counsel and to participate in hearings, and employing a confusing system for scheduling hearings.

Nevertheless, says the report, “while the progress of the Fulton [child attorneys] was previously characterized as slow but steady, the advances made during the preceding 15 months have catapulted the Fulton CA Office within the parameters of Kenny A. compliance.”

Attorney Jeffrey O. Bramlett of the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore LLP and attorney Erik S. Pitchal, assistant clinical professor of law at Suffolk University Law School, serve as co-counsel on the case.

For the full text of today’s report and more information about Children’s Rights’ ongoing reform efforts in Georgia, please visit www.childrensrights.org/georgia.