Report: DeKalb County Meeting Requirements to Improve Legal Representation of Foster Children

ATLANTA, GA — The settlement of a landmark class-action lawsuit seeking reform of the Atlanta child welfare system on behalf of thousands of children in its custody has produced vast improvements in the quality of legal representation foster children in DeKalb County’s receive in Juvenile Court, according to a new report released today by an independent monitor in the case.

According to the report, DeKalb County has met all of the requirements of the court order mandating improvements in the DeKalb County Child Advocacy Center, which provides legal services to the approximately 1,000 DeKalb County children in the custody of the child welfare system. The report highlights dramatic reductions in the number of cases handled by each child advocate attorney and improvements in the quality of legal representation they provide children in the county’s juvenile courts.

The court- ordered reforms are required by the 2006 settlement by DeKalb County of a part of the federal class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue, brought by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights in 2002. The same case also includes a settlement with State officials requiring comprehensive reform of the Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS). The settlement with DeKalb County was reached after a federal court ruled in an unprecedented 2005 decision that children have a constitutional right to zealous and effective legal advocacy in the juvenile courts at every stage of their experience in state custody.

“There is no question that the Kenny A. lawsuit and the resulting court oversight have produced dramatic improvements for children in DeKalb County’s juvenile court system,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “Just a few years ago, DeKalb County’s child advocates were so overburdened that the kids they represented were lucky if they met their attorneys even once. This is major progress — these kids need their own lawyer to light their way, especially in a child welfare system with severe problems such as Georgia DFCS.

The monitoring report, required by the settlement and covering the period September 15, 2007, to March 15, 2008, found that DeKalb County has:

  • Exceeded requirements for reducing attorneys’ caseloads. At the time the Kenny A. lawsuit was filed in 2002, DeKalb County had only two child advocate attorneys (CAAs), each representing approximately 500 child clients. 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.
  • Improved the quality of legal representation for children in foster care. When Kenny A. was filed, children rarely met the CAAs assigned to them or received explanations of court proceedings. Today’s report showsCAAs now meet regularly with child clients in their foster placements and schools, as well as in the courtroom.CAAs also now thoroughly document interviews with their child clients, which include age-appropriate explanations of the court process and the role of counsel. The monitor also notes that CAAs are obtaining more information about their child clients and better meeting their clients’ special needs, particularly in the areas of education and immigration issues.
  • Improved management and administration, including staff supervision and training. DeKalb County also now conducts regular staff performance evaluations and continues to improve in-house staff training while also providing access to regional, state, and national training opportunities. Additionally, the report notes that DeKalb is in the process of enhancing its case-tracking system to ensure that children’s legal needs are addressed in a timely fashion, and has restructured the paralegal position to enhance case-management support.

Amid the praise for DeKalb County’s progress, the report highlights several serious and ongoing problems in Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) that threaten to undermine effective legal representation of foster children, including:

  • Lack of continuity among children’s DFCS case managers. CAAs reported that child clients regularly have as many as six different DFCS managers assigned to them during their time in state custody, due in part to high staff turnover. The constant transfer of cases to often new and inexperienced workers results in the loss of critical information and delayed placement of children into permanent homes.
  • Failure to notify the court or CAAs of changes in children’s placements. The monitor found many instances in which DFCS failed to alert the court and the child’s legal representative when a foster child was moved, though it is legally required to do so. This prevents CAAs from seeing child clients in their home settings and from challenging the suitability of children’s placements in a timely fashion when necessary.
  • Lack of standardized process for conducting home evaluations and lack of consistency in DFCS policy for placing children based on those evaluations. DFCS frequently reports that a foster home evaluation is favorable and places a child in the home when major components of the evaluation are incomplete. Yet the monitor reports many instances in which DFCS denied foster parents’ requests for subsidies to help cover the costs of caring for a foster child on the grounds that their home evaluations were incomplete.

“It is unfortunate that the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services’ failures are still casting shadows on the impressive progress that DeKalb County has made,” Lustbader said. “The biggest obstacle to effective legal representation for abused and neglected children should not be the state’s own child welfare system.”

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210