A spirited debate has prompted members of a Georgia House of Representatives subcommittee to call for a second hearing on legislation that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children without immediate parental notification.
Members of the Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee decided to include Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in a future hearing on the Runaway Youth Safety Act, after scheduled testimony ran over time Tuesday.
As drafted, the measure would protect facilities that serve runaways from violating two state laws: contributing to the unruliness of a minor and interference of custody of a parent, so long as staffers either contact a parent or file an abuse report within the first 72 hours of contact with the child.
Committee members sipped on Coca-Cola and Dasani water as they peppered the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold), with questions during the standing-room-only hearing at the state capitol. At issue mainly was the bill’s perceived ambiguity regarding its definition of “service providers” for runaway youth and the fact that parents may not be made aware of their child’s whereabouts for up to three days.
“I’m a big believer in specificity,” Rep. Alex Atwood, (R-St. Simons) told Rep. Weldon at one point.
“I just want to make sure that we’re uncovering what we need to uncover, but not uncovering too much,” added Rep. Setzler. “We need to make sure we’re threading the needle not pushing the door wide open.”
Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children Executive Director Normer Adams, voiced vehement opposition to the measure.
“This legislation is a pedophile’s dream,” says Adams, of the non-profit that provides support to more than 150 organizations that assist abused and neglected children in the state. “This bill would allow for unlicensed facilities and persons with questionable backgrounds to care for children for up to three days without notifying police or other governmental officials about their presence in a facility.”
Adams says he might support the measure authored by Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center, if a provision was made exclusively for licensed facilities. He’s also pushing for the 72-hour notification window to be shortened.
“It is a nightmare for a parent when a child leaves home and parents do not know where the child is,” he says. “This legislation legalizes that nightmare for three days.”
Supporters of the measure, like Kathy Colbenson, chief executive officer of CHRIS Kids, a residential treatment facility for homeless 17-24 year-olds, have said that much time may be needed to contact unresponsive parents or to build up trust with children who may be victims of abuse.
“A lot of times they’re reluctant to stay at the shelter and receive any kind of help because they know that they have to be reported to DFACS,” said Colbenson.
Emory law student Kate Thompson told lawmakers that the current measure is in line with similar measures in other states, including Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. Covenant House Georgia Executive Director Allison Ashe and Barton Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner, all of whom had contributed to the content of the legislation, also addressed the committee. All three said they are willing to work with members and opponents in tweaking parts of the bill.
“This was a good first step, but obviously we need to meet with [the Barton Center] to discuss the concerns that the committee raised,” Ashe said.
Widner, still visibly surprised and concerned by Adams’ comments, said she is optimistic that HB 185 still has a strong future.
“That’s what’s so great about this committee; they’re so very careful about the legislation that they pass,” she said. “They’re not just stopping the bill they’re asking questions and getting it right. I know that we can work through all of the issues raised, because at the end of the day we all want these kids safely off the streets.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.