The state juvenile code rewrite and a bill proposing an end to the practice of overmedicating foster children topped the agenda Tuesday as advocates from JUSTGeorgia and the Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program gathered at the capitol for their annual lobby day.
More than 300 supporters from across the state turned out to meet with legislators about what they say are two top critical policy issues affecting children this session. “We’re all here trying to do right for the children of Georgia,” says Georgia CASA Executive Director Duaine Hathaway. “We are here to inspire Georgia legislators and get them to act on behalf of Georgia’s children.”
JUSTGeorgia Project Manager Julia Neighbors says the event is as an opportunity for the network of volunteers and supporters to reconnect with seasoned lawmakers, while raising awareness among the 45 new legislators who have taken office this year.
“This is also just a good opportunity for JUSTGeorgia to work with CASA,” she says. “Many of the JUSTGeorgia Coalition members are made up of CASA volunteers, so it made sense to partner for this event.”
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver’s (D–Decatur) HB 23, pushing for more oversight in the process in which Georgia’s foster children are prescribed potent psychotropic drugs was a hot topic during the day’s events. The bill has already been introduced and referred to committee for review.
“We need to have something in place to monitor how these drugs are being administered to children,” says State Rep. Glenn Baker, (D–Jonesboro). “We need to educate our foster parents more about these drugs, but we can’t place the blame on these folks. It’s my understanding is that there is only one druggist in the state that supplies these medications.”
Organizers also urged supporters to refer to Georgia’s current juvenile code rewrite, as the Children’s Code Rewrite. “When people hear juvenile, they tend to have a reaction that is not necessarily in our favor,” explains legislative consultant Wendi Clifton. “It’s not just about juvenile delinquency, the code is also about children who have been abused and neglected. We don’t want the juvenile side to relegate the deprivation side of this.”
Here’s what some other attendees had to say about why they went to Lobby Day:
Jacquinn Scales, Clark Atlanta University Student
“I am majoring in social work, so I came to familiarize myself with CASA and JUSTGeorgia. I am an advocate for foster kids and at-risk kids because I was one in the state of California. I just moved to Atlanta this summer to attend school. I know that these types of programs, like CASA, provide that added support that court system doesn’t.”
“This day at the capitol is about raising awareness to create a ground swell of support for children’s issues. In tight budget times, a lot of child advocacy program tend to get cut. Sure, we must balance our state budget, but we also have to support children’s issues too. Our goal is raise awareness and to educate the legislators on the issues that we care about. If we don’t address deprivation and abuse issues with our children, it turns into an issue of delinquency. A lot of kids who’ve been deprived and abused end up committing crimes if there is no intervention. We all have a role and responsibility to get involved in legislation that affects our children.”
Madelyn Brown, DeKalb County CASA
“We are here to promote the rights and advocacy of children. We want to make our legislators more aware of the important issues. We are here as advocates who represent the children of DeKalb County. We are here speaking and lobbying on their behalf. We also want to raise awareness about the psychotropic drugs and juvenile code. We are especially concerned about the placement of kids when they get suspended from school. They need more counseling and intervention – not to get locked up.”
State Rep. Glenn Baker, (D–Jonesboro)
“We have four CASA classes a year in Clayton County. And also Juvenile Court Judge [Steve] Teske is very hands on and involved with his juvenile justice work. That just solidifies our relationship between CASA and the juvenile justice system. I really don’t know how we did anything before the CASA program. We are 100 percent supportive of them and the work that they do. We need to do what it takes to address the important issues on behalf of Georgia’s children.”
Julia Neighbors, Project Manager, JUST Georgia
”When you look at the children’s code there’s the child welfare side and the delinquency side. The reality is that these are the same kids. It is very important for us to come together on behalf of the kids who are overlooked and neglected. If an intervention on the abuse and deprivation side does not take place, that same child ends up on the delinquency side. We have many new legislators this session and we think it is really important for them to know about CASA. We see the opportunity for some great partnerships. It’s so wonderful for our elected officials to see all kinds of people coming together for the kids. I think it sends a powerful message to our legislators.”
Debbie Alexander, Director, Metro Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC)
“I came out today because I am trying to find more ways to reach out to the community. We do a lot with the kids inside our facility, but now we are trying to do more with those who are on the outside. We are trying to make contacts so that we can give back to the juveniles in the community. I consider myself a servant leader. We want to do more for the children we serve and be advocates for youth. We are trying to find resources for these kids for when they do get out of our facility. We want to be able to let them know what’s available to them as far as support once they leave us.”
Gerald Bostock, Child Welfare Services Coordinator, Clayton County Juvenile Court
“On a scale of one to ten I’d say CASA is a 2,000! They’re huge. In Clayton County I think we do a good job of staying in touch with our legislators; we do talk to them a lot about the current issues. This, however, was an excellent opportunity for our volunteers to mingle with state legislators and make sure that we stay on their radar. Today we came to push HB 23 and the juvenile code rewrite. The problem with this psychotropic drug issue is that there is no oversight. These foster parents don’t understand the drugs that these children are on. You also have caseworkers who don’t understand these drugs either. Somebody has to take responsibility for these medications. As for the code rewrite, it’s been a long time coming. The rewrite will eliminate a lot of areas where there’s room for interpretation in the law. It’ll provide a good structure for the circuits (courts) to work by. At this point, the code is a living being that is constantly changing and growing.”
Mary Primsose, Juvenile Detention Counselor, Metro RYDC
“I am most concerned about the youth that are in our facility who have not really done anything very serious. They’re there for minor things like skipping school and they’ve never committed a crime. There should be alternatives for them besides being locked up. I’m from Alabama and I feel like that my home state and others are creating laws that are more kid-friendly. I want Georgia to do more. There’s a lot of work to be done with our youth. We aren’t here today to learn as much about what to do for the youth already within our facility, but what can we do for the young people on the outside to prevent them from coming in to one.”
Susan Holmes, State Representative, (R-Monticello)
“I’m newly-elected; I represent Jasper, Jones, Monroe and Lamar counties. I think CASA does an excellent job. I am so proud of the work that they do in my district. I am here to learn more about what they do. Young people are the future of our state.”
Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has also served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta’s Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.