ATLANTA – DeKalb County (metro Atlanta) has made dramatic improvements in the quality of legal representation it provides to children in foster care, met all of the requirements of a court order mandating the comprehensive reform of its Child Advocacy Center, and today joined the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and co-counsel in seeking an end to federal court oversight.
According to a motion filed jointly by the parties with Marvin H. Shoob, Senior U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, improvements made in DeKalb County’s Child Advocacy Center include a major reduction in the number of child clients assigned to each attorney — from a high of 500 in 2002 to fewer than 100 children per attorney today — and improved representation at juvenile court hearings, which determine such critical issues as where children will live and whether they will be reunited with their biological parents.
The reforms are mandated by the 2006 settlement by DeKalb County of a part of the federal class action known asKenny 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 foster care in Atlanta.
The settlement with DeKalb County resulted from legal action by Children’s Rights and co-counsel that produced an unprecedented 2005 federal court ruling that children have a constitutional right to zealous and effective legal advocacy through every stage of their experience in state custody. A similar agreement was reached with Fulton County, which has not yet succeeded in implementing the required reforms. The Kenny A. case also includes a settlement with the state of Georgia requiring comprehensive reform of the Atlanta foster care system under the Division of Family and Children’s Services.
“Just a few years ago in DeKalb County, children rarely even met the lawyers assigned to them, let alone received adequate legal representation,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Today, as a result of theKenny A. lawsuit and the federal court oversight it secured, foster children in DeKalb County have informed, engaged attorneys with all the tools necessary to advocate forcefully for their interests.”
Atlanta attorney Karen Baynes was jointly selected as the neutral court-appointed monitor for the DeKalb settlement. Baynes has been assessing the performance of the DeKalb Child Advocacy Center and issuing periodic reports on its performance since the settlement was reached in 2005.
Under the terms of the Kenny A. settlement, DeKalb County has:
- Exceeded requirements for reducing attorneys’ caseloads. At the time the Kenny A. lawsuit was filed, DeKalb County employed only two CAAs to represent approximately 1,000 children. Today, the county has 11 full-time CAAs with caseloads consistently under 100 child clients per attorney — generally remaining within a 65-to-90-client range — surpassing the settlement’s requirement of no more than 130 children per attorney.
- Increased contact between child advocate attorneys and their child clients. When the Kenny A. lawsuit was filed, children in foster care rarely met the attorneys assigned to represent them. One former CAA testified that she failed to personally meet or speak with about 90 percent of her child clients. Today, CAAs meet regularly with child clients prior to court appearances, and meetings occur in children’s foster care placements and schools.
- Improved communication between child advocate attorneys and their child clients. At the time of filing, overburdened CAAs routinely failed to obtain necessary information about their child clients. Today, CAAs more thoroughly document interviews with their child clients, which include age-appropriate explanations of the court process and the role of counsel. CAAs now obtain more information about the specific needs of their child clients, particularly in the areas of education and immigration issues.
- Improved supervision and training for child advocate attorneys. When the Kenny A. lawsuit was filed, overburdened attorneys rarely received necessary oversight or specialized training. Today, DeKalb County conducts regular staff performance evaluations and continues to improve in-house staff training while also providing access to regional, state, and national training opportunities.
“DeKalb County has dramatically improved its representation of vulnerable kids since we brought this class action in 2002,” said Jeff Bramlett, partner in the Atlanta law firm Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP. “To its credit, the DeKalb County government acknowledged responsibility for the problem and successfully recruited skilled child advocates to zealously represent neglected and at-risk children. DeKalb’s child advocates are making a difference — one child at a time — in securing better outcomes and better lives for these kids.”
National child representation expert Erik S. Pitchal, who teaches a child advocacy clinic at Suffolk University Law School, also served on plaintiffs’ co-counsel team. “I am so pleased to be able to point to the DeKalb Child Advocacy Center as a national model, and to urge my students to emulate DeKalb’s work in this field,” Pitchal said.
The DeKalb County settlement agreement and all monitoring reports, as well as the Fulton County settlement agreement and the settlement with Georgia state officials, are available at www.childrensrights.org/georgia.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210