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:

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:

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.

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210