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Tools for Activists: Good News From The Courts, For A Change

I’m not a glass-half-full type of person.  But this story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution really must be categorized as a half-full glass: thanks to a lawsuit by the indomitable organization, Children’s Rights, headed by Ira Lustbader, children in foster care in Fulton County, Georgia are now one tiny step closer to being accorded the type of legal representation we routinely subsidize for murderers and rapists: 

Fulton County has made significant progress in reforming its troubled legal services for children in foster care, according to a report by a court-appointed monitor of the system.

The county Child Advocate Attorney’s Office has expanded its staff and dramatically reduced caseloads for attorneys, largely meeting the demands of a 2006 court settlement.

When the watchdog group Children’s Rights brought the lawsuit in 2002, each attorney represented as many as 500 children in the foster care system. Many children never met the attorneys assigned to represent them in juvenile court hearings, at which critical decisions were made about their lives — including whether they would be returned to their parents or be placed up for adoption, Children’s Rights said. 

The county has increased the number of attorneys from four at the time of the lawsuit to 16, bringing down caseloads to a range of 47 to 91 children per attorney, according to the report filed Friday.

I’ve never understood why innocent children facing life-changing decisions in the courts — through no fault of their own — rarely inspire the type of armchair heroics that animate people whenever some spectacularly evil murderer is facing the chair.  And the way we spend money reflects this cognitive gap.  For decades, the foster care system in Fulton County was not only underfunded and awful, it was so underfunded and awful that I imagine some of the children who progressed from foster care to prison could tell you that they barely noticed the difference.

Yet, convincing the public that this level of neglect is a systematic denial of childrens’ legal rights was, and is, an uphill climb.  Consequently, we’ve got a system where accused rapist and convicted four-time murderer Brian Nichols arrives at the courtroom trailed by reporters and surrounded by a phalanx of silk-stocking attorneys who proceed to contend utterly meaningless claptrap for months at a time at thousands of (taxpayer) dollars an hour, while down the hall some grossly underpaid and over-worked child protection attorney stands alone before a judge, forced to argue a position in a case he had no time to prepare, the outcome of which will determine whether an abused five-year old will be returned to the people who put her in pediatric ICU or be shipped off to a foster home that might save her life, or end it.

In other words, if we treated prisoners the way we treat foster children, Europeans would spend even more of their 23-hour work-week bashing the American justice system. 

If you’re up for a muscular and distressing read, a woman named Ashley Rhodes-Courter has written a memoir that details her time in various child-protection courtrooms and foster care settings in Florida. Despite the title, Three Little Words, it is startlingly unsentimental.

In addition to extraordinary problems, Georgia is lucky to have some extraordinary foster care resources, including the best child protection legal clinic in the country, The Barton Clinic of Emory Law School, founded by Andy and Michelle Barclay and State Representative Mary Margaret Oliver; the One Child, One Lawyer program, and a strong state CASA.  So there’s a glass-half full for a change.

2 Responses to Tools for Activists: Good News From The Courts, For A Change

  1. Daniel says:

    I have a few experiences with DFCS (none involving my own children) and I will tell you it is not just the legal team that is overworked and underfunded. Their case manager turnover rate is around 100%, graduates take it as a first job out of college and quit from the stress.

  2. Tina says:

    Absolutely right. It’s so permanent it’s beyond “crisis.” I really don’t understand why it is that Governor Sonny Perdue dropped the ball so badly on DFCS: by all accounts, he was genuinely committed to its mission. But he let the well-respected ombudsman go, in what looks to have been a political huff, and since then nobody has bothered to keep bailing water for vulnerable children.

    In Florida, the situation is even more chaotic. Privatization whelped a system that is both insufficient and entirely beyond accountability. If it were not for a strong C.A.S.A. program, the body count would be even higher in this state.

    Foster children are victims of crime, in every way. The shabby ways they are treated — and our serial failures to protect them from harm — are symptomatic of the virulent pro-defendant biases that rot the rest of the legal system. It’s wonderful when parents treat DFCS intervention as a wake-up call. But that outcome is far more rare than our policies acknowledge.

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