Report: DeKalb County Improving Legal Representation of Foster Children in Juvenile Courts

ATLANTA, GA — An independent monitoring report released today shows that DeKalb County has made significant progress in lowering caseloads for lawyers representing foster children in the Juvenile Courts, and in improving the quality of legal representation children receive.

The reforms were undertaken to comply with the 2006 settlement of part of the federal class action known as Kenny A., brought by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, which charged DeKalb County with failing to provide adequate legal representation to the approximately 1,000 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 and zealous legal representation throughout their experience with the Juvenile Court.

“The progress DeKalb County has achieved will help protect children in foster care,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “All of these children need lawyers to fight for them, especially in a system that has been plagued for so long with the kind of widespread problems that Georgia’s Department of Family and Children’s Services is still struggling to fix.”

The monitoring report, which is also required by the settlement and covers the period from March 14 to September 14, 2007, found that DeKalb County has:

  • Exceeded requirements for reducing attorneys’ caseloads. At the time the Kenny A. lawsuit was filed, DeKalb County had only two child advocate attorneys who were responsible for representing approximately 1,000 children throughout their experience with the Juvenile Courts. The county has increased the number of full-time child advocates to 11, each now responsible for 90 or fewer cases, surpassing the settlement’s requirement of no more than 130 cases per attorney.
  • Improved the quality of legal representation for children in foster care. Child advocates are more consistently developing and maintaining relationships with the children they represent, encouraging the children to participate in their cases and making greater efforts to obtain information necessary to advocate forcefully on their clients’ behalf. The monitoring report notes particularly strong efforts on behalf of children aging out of foster care and children with serious medical problems.
  • Improved management and administration, including better training and supervision and greater access to support staff. Additionally, the DeKalb Child Advocacy Center offices have been moved into the county courthouse, enabling child advocates to work more efficiently with clients.

Amid the significant progress, however, the report highlights some areas that still need improvement. The report notes that Georgia’s Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS), which is responsible for every child in state custody, often impedes attorneys’ ability to gather basic information about their child clients.

Additionally, DeKalb County child advocates must strengthen their efforts to ensure that there is an up-to-date court order for each child in foster care granting legal custody to the child welfare agency, the report says, and must improve advocacy efforts on behalf of undocumented children from other countries in foster care and around the educational needs of their clients.

The full report and the federal class action settlement with DeKalb County are available at www.childrensrights.org/cases.

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210