Groundbreaking Reform Effort Dramatically Improves System of Legal Representation for Atlanta Foster Children

ATLANTA, GA — Under a court order secured by Children’s Rights in a landmark child welfare reform class action, Fulton County (metro Atlanta) has significantly increased the number of Child Advocate Attorneys assigned to represent abused and neglected children in juvenile court proceedings — and dramatically reduced the unacceptably high caseloads that previously prevented attorneys from providing effective legal representation to children in Fulton County foster care.

According to a new report (PDF) filed with the federal court on Friday by the independent monitor appointed to evaluate Fulton County’s progress in implementing reforms required by the court order, the county has hired enough additional Child Advocate Attorneys to bring caseloads down to a range of 47 to 91 children per attorney. When the class action was filed in 2002, attorneys in Fulton County carried caseloads of approximately 500 children each.

As a result, many children never met the attorneys assigned to represent them before juvenile court hearings at which critical decisions are made about their lives — including where they will live and whether they will be returned to their biological parents or freed for adoption.

Legal action by Children’s Rights and co-counsel in 2005 resulted in an unprecedented ruling by the federal judge in the case that children have a constitutional right to zealous and effective legal representation through every stage of their time in foster care. Under a court-enforceable settlement agreement negotiated by Children’s Rights and Fulton County, the county has established a Child Advocate Attorney’s Office independent of the juvenile courts and increased its staff of child advocate attorneys from just four at the time Children’s Rights filed the case to 16 today — plus paralegals, investigators, and administrative staff.

A workload study required by the settlement was conducted in 2007 and recommended caseloads of no more than 80 children per attorney — a target which Fulton County is now meeting for all but one of its staff — with allowances for higher caseloads if the county implemented other system wide reforms. Today’s report also notes that Fulton County has made significant progress in undertaking these additional reforms; a full report on both caseloads and quality of legal services is due this summer.

“The dramatic improvements in staffing and reductions in caseloads that Fulton County has achieved are critical to ensuring that abused and neglected children in juvenile court get the zealous and effective legal representation they need, and the Child Advocate Attorney’s Office deserves credit for producing these results,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights.

“We will be watching closely and working with the county to ensure that these improvements translate into better representation for abused and neglected kids,” Lustbader said. “These children need attorneys who can fight for their rights throughout their time in foster care, especially given the dangerous problems in the broader Atlanta child welfare system that the state is still struggling to reform.”

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 law firm Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore LLP in 2002 on behalf of all of the 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 plaintiffs’ counsel team.

A similar settlement was reached with DeKalb County, which successfully implemented the reforms and was released from court oversight in October 2008.

The Kenny A. case also includes a settlement with the state of Georgia requiring broader reforms of the Atlanta child welfare system under the state Division of Family and Children Services.

For the full text of today’s report and more information about Children’s Rights’ ongoing reform efforts in Georgia, including a full archive of documents related to the Kenny A. case, please visit www.childrensrights.org/georgia.

Related Press

Report: Fulton Taking Better Legal Care of Foster Children (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 31, 2009)