County has Dramatically Improved Legal Representation for Children in Foster Care
ATLANTA – Georgia’s Fulton County (metro Atlanta) has made enormous strides in providing the county’s nearly 900 children in foster care with quality legal representation in their juvenile court proceedings, and now Children’s Rights, the national advocacy group that secured this court-ordered reform, is joining Fulton County officials to jointly request an end to federal court oversight.
According to a motion (PDF) filed today by the parties with Marvin H. Shoob, Senior U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, the Fulton County Office of the Child Attorney, which is responsible for providing legal representation to children in state custody, has reduced Child Attorney caseloads by expanding the office’s staff from just four attorneys to 16, supervised by a full-time director. As a result, caseloads have plummeted from an average of over 400 children per attorney to 63. The legal staff is now also getting support from additional full-time, trained investigators and social workers to address each child’s unique needs and help ensure that children in foster care are zealously represented in court proceedings where critical decisions about their lives are made.
“We are proud that our reform campaign, with the full cooperation of Fulton County, has spurred these improvements for kids, and we commend the Office of the Child Attorney for its commitment to providing quality legal services for kids in foster care,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Together, we have ensured that children now get the individual and zealous legal advocacy they deserve from the attorneys charged with fighting for their interests.”
Legal action by Children’s Rights and co-counsel in 2005 resulted in a precedent-setting ruling by Judge Shoob that children have a constitutional right to zealous and effective legal representation throughout their time in foster care. In 2006, the lawsuit was settled when Fulton and DeKalb Counties agreed to respective court-ordered reforms of the legal representation that they provide foster children. (DeKalb County successfully exited from court oversight in 2008.) Another separate settlement resulted in a massive reform campaign to improve overall child welfare services in the Atlanta-metro area, which is ongoing.
Former Juvenile Court Judge William Jones of Charlotte, N.C., was jointly selected by Children’s Rights and Fulton County officials as the independent Accountability Agent in the reform effort and has been regularly assessing Fulton County’s progress in implementing the required reforms. Under the terms of the Kenny A. settlement, Fulton County has:
- Surpassed requirements for reducing attorney caseloads. The court-ordered reforms required that Fulton County Child Attorneys represent no more than 100 child clients per attorney. The most recent monitoring report shows attorneys carry even more manageable caseloads of approximately 60 children each.
- Improved attorney performance through better training and more contact with child clients. When the reform effort began, attorneys were so overburdened that they often were unable to even meet with the children assigned to them. Today, Fulton County Child Attorneys routinely meet with children they represent and are well prepared to protect their rights at court appearances. Additionally, all Child Attorneys attend specialized trainings geared toward improving their capacity to represent children.
- Enriched services for children by hiring additional specialized staff. As part of the reform effort, the Fulton County Office of the Child Attorney has also hired an educational advocate and a social worker, both with Master’s-level educations, as well as legal, investigative, and social work interns, all of whom work together to assess and meet the complex needs of the county’s foster children.
The settlement in Fulton County is part of the federal class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue, brought by Children’s Rights and the Atlanta-based law firm Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore LLP in 2002 on behalf of all approximately 3,000 children in the custody of the state-run Atlanta child welfare system. Attorney Erik S. Pitchal, assistant clinical professor of law at Suffolk University Law School, also serves on the plaintiffs’ counsel team.
“As Atlanta lawyers, we took on this fight to better protect the vulnerable kids of our city, and it is inspiring to see Fulton County make such extraordinary progress for children in our juvenile court system,” said Jeffrey O. Bramlett, a partner at Bondurant, Mixon and Elmore and co-lead counsel for the children in the lawsuit.
Said Pitchal: “Atlanta’s legal advocacy program for foster children now serves as a national model. The city’s efforts will be shining examples for prospective lawyers pursuing careers in child welfare.”
A similar settlement was reached with DeKalb County, which successfully implemented the reforms and was released from court oversight in October 2008.
Today’s motion and a complete archive of documents related to the Kenny A. reform class action can be found at www.childrensrights.org/georgia.