ATLANTA, GA — A new settlement agreement was announced today in the Kenny A. v. Perdue civil rights class action lawsuit to reform the Georgia child welfare system. The agreement requires the DeKalb County government, the second largest in the state, to provide “adequate and effective” legal representation to all abused and neglected children who come under the jurisdiction of the DeKalb County Juvenile Court in Atlanta. A similar settlement was announced with Fulton County last month, also part of the Kenny A. lawsuit.
“In a dramatic turn from just a few years ago, every one of these children will now have their own lawyer with the time and skills to zealously help protect them while in state custody,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, the national child advocacy organization that filed the Kenny A. lawsuit in 2002. “This is a major improvement to the system.”
In February 2005, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob issued a landmark ruling that abused and neglected children in Georgia have a constitutional right to legal representation at every stage of their experience in state custody. Judge Shoob’s decision paved the way for the settlement announced today with DeKalb County and the Fulton County settlement in February.
The “right to counsel” settlements with DeKalb and Fulton Counties enhance the protections in an October 2005 consent decree negotiated with Georgia state officials in the same Kenny A. lawsuit. In the state settlement, lawyers for the plaintiff children sought and won systemic reform and greatly increased safety protections and services for approximately 3,000 children in the child welfare system in both Fulton and DeKalb (metro Atlanta), including limits on caseloads of case workers assigned to children and guaranteed medical, dental and mental health screenings and treatment. The claims against the DeKalb and Fulton County governments for failing to provide adequate and effective legal counsel to abused and neglected children were pursued in tandem with the claims against state officials to improve child welfare services and safety.
“You cannot understate the value of individual lawyers for these children, especially in the historically dangerous and poorly performing child welfare system in Atlanta,” said Erik S. Pitchal, Director of the Fordham University Interdisciplinary Center for Family & Child Advocacy in New York and one of the lawyers for the Plaintiffs in theKenny A. case.
The settlement with DeKalb County creates a cap on the caseload of any individual lawyer representing children at no more than 130 children per lawyer. Under the settlement, DeKalb County will more than double its full time attorney staff from four to nine within 120 days, and will hire two more by March of 2007. The settlement with DeKalb County also spells out in detail the lawyers’ responsibilities, including establishing contact with the child, attending court appearances, filing necessary legal papers, advocating for the child’s interests, and staying informed of the child’s needs and status in foster care.
Under the settlement, Atlanta attorney Karen Baynes will serve as the Court-appointed monitor to document the county’s performance and issue public reports every six months. Plaintiffs can bring DeKalb County back to Court to enforce the agreement if children are not receiving adequate legal counsel.
If the “right to counsel” settlements with DeKalb and Fulton Counties are approved by the court after a “fairness hearing” scheduled for May 16, 2006, it will complete the settlement of all claims in the Kenny A. lawsuit.
“We got involved in this lawsuit to help bring rapid improvement in the lives of some of Atlanta’s most vulnerable citizens,” said Corey Hirokawa, a lawyer at the Atlanta firm of Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore, co-counsel in the case along with Children’s Rights. “If DeKalb and Fulton Counties, along with state officials, comply with their many obligations in these settlements, these children’s lives will improve.”
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210