Kids – Not Parents – Get to Call the Shots in Court Under New Code

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Parents are not always the best advocates for children charged with crimes. In fact, parents may be uninvolved, absent, or even hostile, experts told state senators as they discussed proposed changes to Georgia’s juvenile code.

Some of those experts were young people who’ve been through the juvenile justice system. They are identified by first names only:

  • Giovan, 20, was only 11 months old when he entered foster care. By 12, he was also in the juvenile justice system, declared unruly for cursing at foster parents he says repeatedly told him he was worth nothing. His offenses escalated until eventually he served a year in detention. His foster parents were often the ones who reported him, he said.  “I felt alienated and helpless as the court proceeded to hear my case,” he said.
  • Kelly, 22, was removed from her alcoholic mother at age 12. She soon started acting out, and was put on probation. Four years later, after a rocky relationship with foster parents, she was placed in a youth home where her own alcoholism and drug abuse came to light.
  • Aaron went into foster care at 5. “My mother, the only person I knew, was yanked from my grasp,” he said. At 13, he started to get into trouble.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee visited the sensitive topic of parent-child relationships on Thursday as they examined sections of the new code dealing with juvenile delinquency.

The proposed code, known as SB292, would specify that only the state and the accused child are parties in a delinquency case. Parents would have the right to be present in the courtroom and to be heard, but not to speak for their children or make legal decisions on their behalf.

If the child wants to testify, or confess, or go to court without an attorney, parents would have no legal standing to interfere. It’s the child who faces the consequences. But the new code would allow children charged with crimes to waive the right to legal representation only after meeting with a lawyer.

Current Georgia law is unclear on who the actual parties are, said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University. “That’s one of the ambiguities we are hoping to clear up.”

Widner presented the proposals to the committee on behalf of JUSTGeorgia, a coalition of organizations behind the rewrite of the code, which is expected to be re-introduced in the 2011 legislative session.

Some senators expressed concern about the effects of excluding parents. Parents can “stand in their children’s shoes” to sign civil contracts, Sen. Jason Carter (D-Atlanta), pointed out. Why not in delinquency cases?

“What an 11-year-old wants is not always what an 11-year-old needs,” said Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome).

“Don’t you believe that if a child has a right to a lawyer and is going to waive that right, he ought to have an opportunity to talk that over with his parents?” asked Sen. John Crosby (R-Tifton). “In most cases parents love their children.”

“In general people love their children,” Widner agreed, “but a lot of parents we see in juvenile court don’t have the same skill level we see in the rest of society. We see families that have in general more challenges than the average family.”

And, she adds, like the day’s young witnesses, many children charged with delinquency are in the foster care system. Parents who are responsible, engaged and involved with their children will have “ample opportunity” to advise their children, Widner said.

“The truth oftentimes is that parents are not there to represent their child,” said Randee J. Waldman, an Emory law professor and director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory. “They’ll say, ‘Send my kid to jail. My kid needs to learn a lesson.”

Often, she said, parents or guardians themselves are bringing the charges against the child. “Parents sometimes just want their child to be fixed,” she said. “They want their child to be sent to detention to be fixed.”

The new code has standards to make sure a child is competent to make his own legal decisions (the topic for another hearing) and judges can appoint a guardian ad litem to make sure the child’s best interests are known.

From the judge’s perspective, “We make every effort to get the parents to court,” said Judge Peggy Walker of Douglas County, “but we discover a lot of abuse and neglect cases as the result of juvenile action.”

The committee took no action, and plans to hold at least one more hearing on delinquency issues.

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