The Georgia Commission on Family Violence has bounced among state agencies for the last 18 years - from Human Resources to the Administrative Office of the Courts to Corrections and back to the Courts. Now there are new questions about its future.
In the most recent change, the General Assembly voted late in the 2010 session to move the agency’s $428,000 budget from the Department of Corrections in the executive branch to the Administrative Office of the Courts in the judicial branch—but failed to amend the law to actually move the agency because time ran out. Corrections transferred management to the Courts by agreement.
Now there’s discussion about moving the Commission again, this time to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, an agency created by outgoing Governor Sonny Perdue two years ago. Supporters say services should be combined under one umbrella. But the legislature has rejected such a move in the past.
The Commission is scheduled to meet on Friday under the leadership of Judge Peggy Walker, a Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge elected as chairwoman in September. Walker said this week that she will ask members of the Commission to form a committee to look at how it should be governed. The governance committee will examine the pros and cons of different arrangements, look at how other states handle similar agencies, and make a recommendation to the full Commission. Proposed changes must go to the legislature.
“We will be looking at where the Commission can best be attached to serve its functions,” Walker said. “The critical issue is the independence of the Commission. . . The focus will absolutely be on the work, not the politics.”
The Commission was formed in 1992 to develop a comprehensive state-wide plan for ending family violence. The agency conducts research, provides training, monitors legislation, certifies intervention programs, and co-ordinates the statewide Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project. It also offers guidance and works with task forces in local communities.
A degree of autonomy is crucial, Walker said, because to fulfill its function the Commission has to point out flaws in the state’s system. “We have to be able to look at where the gaps are and where the problems are, and we have to be able to have very frank discussions,” Walker said.
Friday’s gathering will be the first full meeting for many of the 37 commissioners. Perdue made 24 appointments in August, including two reappointments. The new group took office in September. Besides the governor’s appointees, the Commission includes by statute three members each from the state house and senate, and representatives of some state agencies and departments.
Some outgoing members oppose a possible move to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, partially out of fear that the move would eventually mean elimination of the Commission.
Two years ago, the governor tried to do away with the Commission; in the 2010 session, the governor’s office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the Commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has obtained a copy of a proposed Intergovernmental Agreement among the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Commission on Family Violence that would give administrative oversight of the Commission to the Office for Children and Families. The agreement, which would have taken effect on Sept. 10, has not been addressed by the Commission.
Some Commission supporters speculate that an effort is underway to accomplish administratively what could not be done legislatively.
In a letter to new members, outgoing member Judge Clarence Seeliger of DeKalb County expressed concern that supporting a move to the Office for Children and Families was a “pre-condition” of being appointed for new members.
Walker, who has been on the Commission since 2006 and was just reappointed, said Perdue “never made it a pre-condition of appointment to adopt any position,” although, she said, “the governor made it clear what he wanted.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, as head of the judicial branch where the Commission is now housed, said she doesn’t believe she has the authority to transfer the budget without action by the state legislature. “Every indication I have is that the Commission is functioning very well,” she said.
Hunstein takes great interest in the work of the Commission. She headed a group formed by the Supreme Court in 1989 that looked at issues of gender bias statewide. “One of the most significant findings was that there was a real problem with domestic violence cases and how they were being handled by law enforcement and the judiciary system,” she said. That group recommended creation of a statewide commission on domestic violence. The Commission on Family Violence resulted.
Perdue formed the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in 2008 to coordinate and fund prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation. Discussions are underway for the possible transfer of about $13 million in funding for domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers from the Department of Human Services to the Office.
The Governor's Office for Children and Families announced in August that it was forming a new family violence unit that would “develop a comprehensive strategic plan for eliminating family violence.” To “jump start” the development, there were six regional hearings around the state in September and October.
Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke attended the September meeting of the Commission on Family Violence and was questioned about her agency’s role in domestic violence.
“I’m trying to figure out why we have two different state agencies doing the same thing,” one legislative member of the Commission told her. “It’s the duty of the Commission to do this. I’m trying to figure out why your office is doing this.”
In a telephone interview this week, Bennecke said her office “has a number of strengths. We want to see how we can contribute.” She said conversations are ongoing about what the roles of various entities will be. “How we all work together collectively is still under discussion.”
Asked whether she would like to see the Commission come under her office, she said, “I wouldn’t personally say I want to go on the record about that . . . I’m looking for my direction from the governor, whom I report to.”
In January, that governor will be Nathan Deal. And the legislature will convene again with some new members. It’s unclear what that will mean for who controls work against domestic violence in Georgia.