Unprecedented Reforms Transform Legal Representation for Atlanta Foster Youth; Federal Court Oversight Could End in 2011

ATLANTA, GA — The end of federal court oversight of the Fulton County Child Attorney Office is in view as a new progress report shows comprehensive reforms spurred by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights have ensured that children in Atlanta foster care receive significantly higher quality representation from the attorneys appointed to represent them in Family Court hearings involving critical decisions about their lives, families, and future.

Before Children’s Rights brought the class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue seeking widespread child welfare reforms on behalf of thousands of abused and neglected children in Atlanta, Fulton County had just four attorneys available to represent children in foster care, each carrying a caseload averaging well over 400 children. These overwhelming caseloads routinely prevented the attorneys from even meeting with the children whose interests they were appointed to protect.

Today, according to the report (PDF) issued by the independent, court-appointed Accountability Agent, the Child Attorney Office now employs a full-time director and 16 full-time attorneys with caseloads that average 63 children each. The legal staff is now supplemented by additional full-time, trained investigators and social workers tasked specifically with addressing the unique needs of each vulnerable child whose case comes through the office.

“There was a time just a few years ago when abused and neglected kids were considered lucky if they even met the attorneys assigned to them before court appearances at which life-changing decisions were being made,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “These reforms have guaranteed that foster kids now have dedicated and knowledgeable attorneys representing their wishes in major court proceedings about such issues as whether they can return home to their parents or, if they cannot, if they should be adopted or live with relatives.”

The reforms were mandated in a 2006 settlement that followed an unprecedented federal court order secured by Children’s Rights and co-counsel ruling that all children in foster care have a right to zealous and effective legal counsel at every major stage of their involvement in state custody. Neighboring DeKalb County successfully completed similar reforms and exited court oversight in 2008.

In addition to skilled attorneys with manageable caseloads, children in foster care need advocates who can consider their unique health and educational needs and track their progress as they move through the system. As part of these reforms, Fulton County has hired an educational advocate and a social worker, both with Master’s-level educations, along with legal, investigative, and social work interns, which have greatly supported the work of the children’s attorneys. For example, these new staff members are:

  • Facilitating regular trainings for attorneys on topics such as educational topics and federal requirements.
  • Ensuring children are enrolled in school.
  • Attending important school meetings on special education needs.
  • Linking children and their families to necessary mental health services.
  • Testifying in court on the child’s behalf.
  • Performing home assessments for visitations or potential placements for children.

Having made great progress toward implementing the improvements outlined in today’s report, which covers the period from July 30, 2009, through June 30, 2010, Fulton County is now poised to exit federal court oversight once the independent monitor assesses the quality of legal representation for children whose cases are handled in a specialized drug court.

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 LLC, and Erik S. Pitchal of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston, MA.

Today’s report and a complete archive of documents related to the Kenny A. reform class action can be found at www.childrensrights.org/georgia.