A proposed overhaul of Georgia's juvenile code remains alive at the State Capitol, but bills addressing school attendance and over-medicating foster children died this week as the Legislature completed its 30th day. Or, if not legally dead, the bills are on life-support.
The General Assembly designates Day 30 of each year's session as "Crossover Day," the deadline by which the state House or Senate must pass a bill and send it over to the other chamber. Bills that don't make it are dead, but can be revived by tacking the language onto another measure that remains under consideration.
The Senate's version of the juvenile-code rewrite -- a mammoth, five-year, 243-page reorganization and update of laws dealing with delinquent, unruly and neglected children -- died Wednesday without a vote by the full chamber. But the House last week unanimously passed a nearly identical version, which now becomes the vehicle for senators to continue working on the bill.
The Legislature has 10 more official days before adjournment -- plenty of time to reconcile relatively minor differences on the bill between the two chambers. The House wants the state-run public defender system to continue representing youths in juvenile court who are facing possible incarceration. The Senate bill would have removed that duty due to cost concerns, leaving it up to county governments to pick up the tab.
Also staying alive is a Senate bill to toughen the law against contraband in juvenile detention facilities. The bill, pushed by the state Department of Juvenile Justice, would add cellphones and other electronic devices to the list of proscribed items. It also more clearly defines the area where such items may not be brought in from outside. Violators could face up to five years in prison.
The Senate this week also passed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for an eyewitness to fail to report sexual or other abuse of a juvenile. Similar bills have been introduced in statehouses across the country in the wake of the recent scandal at Penn State University, where football coach Joe Paterno lost his job over the school's failure to report an alleged sexual assault by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Falling by the wayside Wednesday, though, were bills dealing with child prostitution, truancy and oversight for medications given to foster children.
Child prostitutes who have been victims of human trafficking will have to wait at least another year to see if they might be able to have their records expunged. A 2011 law allows juvenile court judges in delinquency hearings to consider evidence that youths were victimized by pimps or traffickers, but the House this year did not act in time on a bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) to allow that evidence to be used to vacate past findings of delinquency.
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) hasn't given up on two of her bills. House Bill 821, which didn't get a House vote despite the support of the Education Committee, would have held parents criminally accountable if their kids are not enrolled in school or have accumulated five or more unexcused absences. Violators would face up to 30 days in jail.
Oliver said Thursday that she's working on several avenues to keep the bill alive by attaching the language to another one.
The Decatur lawmaker says she's also hopeful that state officials, without a legislative mandate, will begin to monitor mood- and behavior-altering medications given to Georgia's foster children.
The federal government requires that states come up with plans to make sure foster kids are not over-medicated with such psychotropic drugs, but Georgia has not yet done so.
Oliver's bill, which would require the state Department of Human Resources to develop those guidelines, never made it out of committee. The department, she said, is already discussing the issue with private advocacy groups.
"My primary goal was to get the attention of DHS publicly" and to nudge the department toward compliance, Oliver said.
Last month, a year-long study concluded that Georgia exceeds the national average in prescribing psychotropic medications to children in foster care. The report, prepared by the Barton Child Law & Policy Center, called for clearer rules for obtaining informed consent of patients, oversight standards and a ban on the use of psychotropic medications as "chemical restraints" or for the convenience of caregivers.