Report: Fulton County Inching Toward Improvements in Children’s Legal Representation

ATLANTA, GA — Fulton County made incremental progress toward improving legal representation of children in Juvenile Court during the first half of 2008, but much remains to be done before the county fulfills the court-enforceable requirements mandated by the settlement of the federal class action lawsuit aimed at reforming Atlanta’s troubled child welfare system, according to a new independent monitoring report issued today.

The report shows that caseloads for Child Advocate Attorneys (CAAs) continue to exceed the court-ordered limit, attorneys’ performance in the courtroom remains largely inadequate, and delays and “continuances” in court proceedings are still too common.

The court-ordered reforms are required by the 2006 settlement by DeKalb County of the federal class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue, brought by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights in 2002. The settlement was reached after a federal court affirmed in an unprecedented 2005 decision that children have a constitutional right to zealous and effective legal advocacy at every stage of their experience in state custody.

Today’s report on Fulton County is the third since the settlement of Kenny A. An independent report issued earlier this month on DeKalb County, which entered into a separate but similar settlement in the Kenny A. class action, showed that DeKalb County is meeting all of the requirements of the court order mandating improvements in the legal representation of children in its Juvenile Courts.

“As we’ve seen in DeKalb County, the required improvements are within reach, but they won’t occur without a sense of urgency that appears to be lacking right now in Fulton County,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The state’s Division of Family and Children Services must also pick up the pace and correct its own chronic failures, which continue to hinder the zealous representation of children in Atlanta’s Juvenile Courts.”

Today’s report, covering the period January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2008, was authored by retired North Carolina Juvenile Judge William G. Jones, who serves as the independent, court-appointed “Accountability Agent” for Fulton County in the Kenny A. case. The report notes several areas in which Fulton County’s progress appears to be lagging:

  • Caseloads for Child Advocate Attorneys remain too high. Eleven of the county’s 15 full-time CAAs carry caseloads of 120 or more children, with four attorneys responsible for 140 or more children–well over the cap of 80 children per CAA established by the settlement agreement. While this is a significant improvement over conditions when the Kenny A. lawsuit was filed, when caseloads exceeded 500 children per attorney, it represents a minor caseload reduction since the last reporting period. The Kenny A. settlement allows for caseloads of up to 120 children per CAA, pending other reforms to ensure quality case practice, which have yet to be fully implemented.
  • Quality of CAAs’ case practice remains inadequate. Based on courtroom observation of 32 measures of performance–including clearly conveying the child client’s position to the court, making objections, and effectively using opening and closing statements–Fulton County CAAs performed below satisfactory level. On almost 50 percent of the performance measures observed, CAAs in at least half the cases reviewed received a “poor” or “needs improvement” rating.
  • Delays and requests for “continuances” occur too frequently. According to the report, court hearings for children are routinely rescheduled, delaying critical decision-making and opportunities to locate and place children in permanent homes. The monitor found such delays occurred in 38 percent of cases reviewed, which is an improvement but “still far too high.” CAAs’ handling of issues related to these delays was rated “satisfactory” in only 24 percent of cases reviewed.

The report highlights progress in several areas, including improved continuity of legal representation for children in foster care by a single attorney, more frequent contact between CAAs and their child clients and improved documentation of all aspects of children’s cases. However, it also identifies ongoing problems in Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) that threaten to undermine effective legal representation of foster children, including:

  • DFCS does not ensure that CAAs are present at meetings about their child clients. The report found thatDFCS fails to regularly include CAAs in meetings and other events, such as permanency reviews and educational administrative proceedings, at which critical decision-making for a child may occur. According to the report, CAAs documented attendance at such meetings in only 36 percent of cases reviewed.
  • DFCS fails to notify CAAs of changes in children’s placements. The monitor found many instances in whichDFCS failed to alert a child’s CAA when the child was moved, though it is legally required to do so. By denyingCAAs sufficient advance warning of proposed placement changes, DFCS prevents CAAs from challenging the suitability of the changes quickly enough when they feel it is necessary.
  • DFCS does not consistently bring children to court hearings. The report found that although DFCS has made some progress in this area, DFCS does not consistently fulfill its responsibility to bring children to court hearings, which deprives children of the opportunity to address the court or voice their opinions. DFCS has also failed to create a formal protocol regarding the attendance of children at court hearings.

The children in the Fulton County right-to-counsel case are represented by attorneys at Children’s Rights, the Atlanta law firm of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore L.L.C., and Erik S. Pitchal of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston,MA.

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