In June 2002, Children’s Rights filed a class action against state and county officials responsible for the foster care system in metropolitan Atlanta, on behalf of the approximately 3,000 children in foster care in Atlanta. The federal complaint cites numerous systemic problems with dangerous consequences for children, among them:
- Children languish for months in dangerous emergency shelters without necessary treatment and services, exposed to violence, sexual assault, and other illegal activity;
- Children in foster care experience high levels of abuse and neglect;
- Children are routinely shuffled from foster home to foster home, spending many years in state custody; and
- Children in foster care receive inadequate health care and educational services.
- Children in foster care are denied adequate legal representation in the Juvenile Courts due to high caseloads of attorneys assigned to represent children.
A settlement agreement was reached with Georgia officials in July 2005, requiring infrastructure changes, service guarantees, and improved oversight over child safety; and requiring the state to meet 31 specific benchmarks in reforming the child welfare system. The federal court approved the settlement in October 2005 and appointed two independent monitors to report on the state’s performance in implementing the required reforms.
Two additional settlements were subsequently reached with Fulton and DeKalb counties (metro Atlanta) which guarantee every child the right to effective legal representation throughout their involvement with the child welfare system. In May 2006, the federal court approved the right-to-counsel settlements and appointed two separate, independent monitors for Fulton and DeKalb counties, respectively. The reports issued by those independent monitors reflect how legal representation for children has improved as a result of the right-to-counsel settlements. In Fulton County, caseloads have been reduced and an independent Child Advocate Attorney’s Office has been created, but the County still has far to go to implement the required reforms. However, the legal representation of foster children in DeKalb County has improved so dramatically that in October 2008, the federal judge ended court oversight of the County’s compliance, following the monitor’s finding that DeKalb was meeting or exceeding all of the requirements of the settlement.
Under the broader settlement agreement with state officials, overall reform of Atlanta’s child welfare system is proceeding slowly, with some areas of progress but with persistent problems in others. In August 2008, Children’s Rights filed a motion asking the court to hold the State Defendants in contempt for failing to meet court-ordered requirements for finding permanent homes for hundreds of children who have languished in foster care for years. Four months later, Children’s Rights agreed to withdraw its contempt motion in exchange for State Defendants’ court-enforceable commitment to take specific aggressive measures to find permanent homes for all children who remain in state custody since before the Consent Decree was signed. As part of a new agreement, state officials will work closely with national technical assistance experts to step up their efforts to find permanent homes for all foster children so they do not have to grow up in state custody.
Additionally, in late 2008, Children’s Rights and state officials agreed to a set of curative action plans to address backlogs and delays in the provision of medical, mental health, and dental screens and treatment, and to improve planning for children who are expected to be discharged from state custody.
Children’s Rights will closely watch over the State Defendants’ implementation of these new agreements, as well as their performance on the other requirements of the Consent Decrees, and will continue to take appropriate action to ensure the successful reform of Atlanta’s child welfare system.