A statewide coalition garners bipartisan support
by Rachel Elovitz
After three years of development, Senate Bill (SB) 292, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, was introduced by Senator Bill Hamrick at the conclusion of the 2009 session of the Georgia General Assembly. If passed, it would supplant the current provisions of the Georgia Code that govern our state’s response to children and their families in cases involving deprivation (abuse and neglect), delinquency, unruliness, and truancy.
The goal of SB 292 is to reorganize, modernize, simplify, and streamline the juvenile court sections of the Code to enable the state and practitioners to more readily and effectively address the needs of Georgia’s children and families. The changes are both administrative and substantive, the latter of which are designed to reflect a wealth of knowledge that has been gleaned in the last 40 years since the existing Code was adopted. Senate Bill 292 will also bring Georgia into compliance with federal mandates concerning juvenile court proceedings.
To streamline cases, SB 292 creates 12 articles within the Juvenile Code:
Article 1: General Provisions
Article 2: Juvenile Court Administration
Article 3: Deprivation
Article 4: Termination of Parental Rights
Article 5: Independent Living Services
Article 6: Children in Need of Services
Article 7: Delinquency
Article 8: Competency in Delinquency Cases
Article 9: Parental Notification
Article 10: Access to Hearings and Records
Article 11: Emancipation
Article 12: Child Advocate for the Protection of Children
Space limitations preclude me from touching on the vast and notable changes that would be accomplished by the new Code, but among them is the requirement that, whenever possible, the same judge preside over all proceedings involving a particular child and the child’s family. The new Code would also allow the Court to refer cases for mediation and to consolidate proceedings if the same child is alleged to be both deprived and delinquent. A child’s right to his or her own attorney cannot be waived under the new Code, although the Court retains the right to appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) or court-appointed special advocate (CASA) who would, as has traditionally been the case, serve as the eyes and ears of the Court and advocate for that which is in the child’s best interest, even if contrary to the child’s wishes.
Under the revised Code the Court would be required to give particular weight to the child’s need for stability and a timely resolution of the issues. Senate Bill 292 also places emphasis on siblings staying together when brought into state custody. The option for courts to delegate permanency hearings to citizen review panels is eliminated, and the Court must make detailed findings in support of decisions involving placements and case plans.
Under the new Code the Department of Family and Children Services (“DFCS”) would be obligated to administer services to adolescents in foster homes and to young adults who were in care until the age of 18, so that they can learn self-reliance and be independent once released from care.
The Bill also provides a different manner of dealing with “unruly” children, i.e., children who have run away from home, skipped school, and violated curfew. The new article is known as Children in Need of Services or “CHINS,” and provides a process that identifies needs and services in an effort to mitigate the child’s inappropriate conduct before it results in delinquency.
Historically, the general public in Georgia has been denied access to juvenile court deprivation hearings. On Jan. 1, 2010, a new law [Senate Bill (SB) 207] goes into effect, amending OCGA §15-11-78 and granting Georgians access to abuse and neglect cases with limited exception, i.e., when closing the hearing is necessary to protect victims of domestic violence.
Even when an exception applies, however, under SB 207, the Court must make written findings of fact before closing a hearing to the public. The hope of SB 207 is that it would arrest professional incompetence that too often has adversely affected the welfare of Georgia’s children. Many professionals fear, however, that the new law will result in the sensationalization of private family matters at the expense of already traumatized children. Senate Bill 292 would effectively return the laws governing such access to their pre-Jan. 1, 2010, status.
Senate Bill 292 is in the midst of pre-session hearings in the Senate and has garnered significant bipartisan support. The Bill is also buttressed by a statewide coalition, “JUSTGeorgia.” JUSTGeorgia was implemented through the philanthropic efforts of Georgia Appleseed, Voices for Georgia Children, and the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic of the Emory University School of Law. Membership has reportedly grown exponentially.
The list of proponents includes both state and private organizations, as well as individuals, among them Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Alliance on Developmental Disabilities, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness, the Georgia PTA, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, and Project Save. For more information about JUSTGeorgia, visit www.justga.org.
If you want to be a voice in the dialogue, whether in support of or in opposition to SB 292 or any of its proposed provisions, now is the time to contribute.
Rachel A. Elovitz is a domestic litigator who regularly serves as a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children in custody, abuse, and neglect cases in Georgia’s Superior and Juvenile Courts. She is a regular contributor to the DeKalb Bar News.