Fulton County Showing “Slow but Steady Progress” in Improving Legal Representation for Foster Children

ATLANTA, GA — An independent monitoring report released today shows that Fulton County is making “slow but steady” progress toward lowering the caseloads of attorneys representing foster children in the Juvenile Courts, and some improvements in the quality of representation on behalf of children in court hearings. However, data in the report shows that caseloads for the Child Advocate Attorneys (CAAs) remain far too high, delays and “continuances” in court proceedings are too common, files used in representing children routinely lack critical information, and someCAAs “lack a sense of urgency about the overarching needs of children for permanency and stability.”

The reforms are mandated by the 2006 settlement of part of the federal class action known as Kenny A., brought by national advocacy group Children’s Rights, which charged Fulton County with failing to provide adequate legal representation to the approximately 1,900 abused and neglected children in the custody of its child welfare system. The settlement followed a landmark ruling by the federal court that children in foster care have the legal right to effective, zealous legal representation throughout their experience with the Juvenile Court.

An independent report issued in December on DeKalb County, which entered into a separate settlement regarding children’s right to counsel in the Kenny A. lawsuit, showed that DeKalb County has surpassed the court-ordered benchmarks for reducing CAAs’ caseloads, and highlighted the significant progress DeKalb County has made in improving the overall quality of legal representation for children in foster care.

“DeKalb County has shown significant progress in implementing reforms in the legal representation of children, and Fulton County must now pick up the pace to provide foster children with the high-quality legal representation that the law guarantees them,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “This is a matter of particular urgency given the threats that Georgia foster children face to their well-being as a result of the widespread problems that the state’s Department of Family and Children’s Services continues to struggle with.”

Today’s Fulton County monitoring report was authored by retired North Carolina Juvenile Judge William Jones, who serves as the neutral “Accountability Agent” for Fulton County appointed by the Court in the Kenny A. case, and covers the period from July 1, 2007 to December 31, 2007. The report notes progress in several areas, including:

  • Independence of the Child Advocate Attorney Office. The report confirms that the Child Advocate Attorney Office, a division of the Fulton County government, is under the management of a Child Advocate Board independent from the Juvenile Court. Management responsibility for the CAA Office had been moved from the Juvenile Court to the Public Defender’s Office in March of 2007, but that was deemed not sufficiently independent and a separate Child Advocate Board was created by a resolution of the Fulton County Commission.
  • Adequacy of staffing. The CAA office now has a Managing Attorney and 16 full-time CAAs, as well as three administrative staff, four investigators, and a master-level social worker. This is up from 11 CAAs and three investigators in early 2007, and only four CAAs when the Kenny A case was filed.
  • Improved training for attorneys. The report found that the CAA Office is “conducting regular, ongoing in-service training on trial skills, child advocacy issues, and community resources,” as well as increased mentoring and supervision for less-experienced attorneys.
  • Adoption of a “client-directed” model of legal representation. Fulton County has adopted a “client-directed” model under which the “child’s wishes” are at the center of each lawyer’s advocacy.
  • Improved advocacy for children. According to the report, “Court observations over time revealed that theCAAs are improving the quality of the representation, the vigor of their advocacy, and their compliance with the dictates of Kenny A.”

The new report also found several continued problems:

  • Attorneys’ caseloads remain too high. Eleven of the county’s 16 full-time CAAs currently carry caseloads in excess of 120 children, with five attorneys responsible for 140 or more children–well over the cap of 80 cases established under the terms of the settlement agreement. However, this represents major progress over a few years for Fulton County; caseloads at the time the Kenny A. lawsuit was brought were approximately 500 children per attorney.
  • Improvements in the quality of legal representation for children in foster care have been limited. Based on courtroom observation of 45 measures of performance, Fulton County CAAs performed at a satisfactory level in only nine areas, earning a “poor” rating on 12 measures and needing improvement, according to the report, on the remaining 24. “Perhaps most concerning,” the report found, “some CAAs lack a sense of urgency about the overarching needs of children for permanency and stability.”
  • Delays and requests for “continuances” are still routine. The report found that hearings for children are routinely rescheduled, along with critical decisions, which results in children languishing in the child welfare system and missing opportunities to be placed in permanent homes out of state custody.
  • Case files are incomplete and inadequately maintained. The report found some improvements in record-keeping, but areas of critical information–such as indications of whether required “reasonable efforts” were made to keep children in their homes–are still often lacking in the children’s legal case files. Additionally, Fulton County has failed to fully implement a computerized case-management system; as a result, CAAs were unable to readily identify how many cases were assigned to them at the time the monitor was preparing the report.

The children in the Fulton 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.

The full Fulton report and the federal class action settlement with Fulton County, as well the recent DeKalb County report and the settlement with DeKalb County, are available at www.childrensrights.org.

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210