Kirsten Widner

Support Proposed Revision of Georgia Juvenile Code

We are deeply saddened by Judge Rodatus’ op-ed on the juvenile code rewrite project and his views about the process that has been used to refine the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, which in its most current form is House Bill 641. His remarks do not reflect the wider community of juvenile court professionals. We appreciate the opportunity to provide some important clarifications and corrections. The Original Proposed Model Code

Judge Rodatus correctly notes that this project began with work of the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the State Bar of Georgia on a Proposed Model Code (PMC) for Georgia. However, the circumstances of the PMC were very different from what he describes.

Governor Deal, Lawmakers Commit To Juvenile Code Rewrite Vote In 2012

Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — will likely be ready for a vote in the next legislative session thanks to support from Gov. Nathan Deal and some in the Georgia House and Senate leadership, according to two non-profits involved in the drafting of the legislation. “The time has come for us to rethink how our state is responding to children who have found themselves in trouble with the law,” said Gov. Deal in a news release.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Representatives from the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and Voices for Georgia’s Children, said, this week that the Act, Senate Bill 127, received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” Voices lists the legislation’s current status as “in the Senate Judiciary Committee” with “general support from the Governor’s office as well as the office of the Speaker.” “From the beginning, this process has been a great example of how to build good, thoughtful and effective legislation,” said sponsor Senator Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). “We have had buy-in from all the players: from the courts to the prosecutors, defense attorneys, service providers, youth and families; pretty much every interested party.”

JUSTGeorgia, a coalition that includes Voices and Barton along with non-profit Georgia Appleseed, has led the rewrite effort as a vehicle to improve Georgia’s juvenile laws and the underlying social service systems. Barton’s Policy Director Kirsten Widner and Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney contend that the rewrite is the culmination of more than four years of research and consensus building to solve dilemmas faced by children, families, courts, detention facilities and taxpayers. SB 127, they said, is based on data-driven “best practices,” with an eye to timeliness and fiscal responsibility.

Foster Care Meds Bill Spirit Lives On In New Pilot Program

A bill aimed at preventing the overmedication of Georgia’s foster children might be dead this legislative session, but the spirit of the legislation lives on in a new a pilot program underway, its sponsor says. House Bill 23, the Foster Children’s Psychotropic Medication Monitoring Act, did not make last week’s critical “Crossover Day” deadline to advance to the state Senate, but Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) has confirmed that Casey Family Programs has stepped in to help assess the problem that the measure sought to address. The Seattle-based national foundation is funding a review of prescription patterns of psychotropic drugs for children in Georgia’s foster care system. The effort comes on the heels of a state Supreme Court report that found many children in state custody for extended periods are prescribed psychotropic drugs at “alarmingly high rates.” Casey has not yet disclosed the amount of money earmarked for the program that unofficially began in February. The Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University Law School will operate the program, in partnership with the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) and other community partners.

Deal Taps First Woman to Lead Ga. Juvenile Justice Agency: Amy Howell Named New DJJ Commissioner

Governor-Elect Nathan Deal has nominated Amy Howell as the next Commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice. She will be the first woman to ever lead the agency.  Howell is a DJJ veteran, an attorney who currently serves as Deputy Commissioner.  She is slated to replace Commissioner Garland Hunt in mid-January. DJJ Board members who must approve the appointment, got the word this morning by email. Howell is a long-time child advocate.  She was hired at DJJ by then-Commissioner Albert Murray, who promoted her within the agency. Amy Howell is an alumna of the Barton Clinic at Emory University, where she started in 2002 as an Equal Justice Works fellow, and became Managing Attorney of the Southern Juvenile Defender Center.  According to the Barton website, Howell helped develop protocols for pre-trial mental health assessment, detention alternative policies, and public education on the juvenile justice system.  She has written a manual called “Representing the Whole Child: A Juvenile Defender Training Manual.”

Howell is also past president of the Young Lawyer’s  Division of the State Bar of Georgia. Before she became a lawyer, Howell taught elementary school and worked with special needs and gifted children in North Carolina.  She got her BA from Connecticut College and her JD from Temple University.

Steve Reba: Return of Silence

There was no banner, no cake, and nobody waiting to cheer when he walked in the door. He simply entered the sparsely furnished, one-room apartment and placed his duffle bag on the bed. He rested his head on the mattress and felt pleasantly alone in the silence. The small studio apartment above the back garage of this neighborhood home was arranged by a volunteer who fundamentally changed his course in prison. In year four of thirteen, after spending over nine months in the hole, she came to him.

Michelle Barclay: Reflecting on Being Thankful

I sat in the Fulton County Juvenile Court audience on Saturday, November 20th , with my son and my husband, watching the joyful and moving ceremony of 23 families who were celebrating their adoptions on National Adoption Day . Afterward, I thought about my earlier conversation this past week remembering Fulton’s Terrell Peterson who suffered and died at the age of 5 when he should have been protected by our child welfare system and adopted by a loving family. These two events might seem like they are far apart but they are linked in my mind because November is also the 10 year anniversary of Terrell’s picture on the cover of Time Magazine with the title of “The Shame of Foster Care.” Terrell’s tragic case deeply affected many people. For my family, Terrell was the catalyst of working with Emory University School of Law to create the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic , for others it was the call to become foster parents , CASAs or mentors.

Judge Michael Key Targets Zero Tolerance, Legal Orphans, Crossover Cases and More on National Stage

LaGrange—Judge Michael Key is a hometown boy, a son of  the cotton mill village where he played rhythm guitar in a rock-and-roll band on Saturday nights and went to a Southern Baptist Church on Sundays. He was headed off to Emory University’s law school before he ever met a lawyer. “Back then people just didn’t go from the mill village to being a lawyer,” he says. For 31 years, Key (LaGrange High School, class of ’68) has been back home practicing law. For 21 of those years, he’s also been a part-time juvenile court judge.

Steve Reba: He was a Hall Monitor

He patrolled the school halls, proudly donning his pull-over uniform vest.  It was an honor given to top students in the fifth grade class, and he gladly accepted.  Authoritarian, responsible, and trustworthy, he was a hall monitor.  

In just three years, however, the hall monitor would be convicted of four gang-related murders and sentenced to a string of consecutive life sentences. 

 How?  Like all youthful offenders, there was a transformation point.  For this kid, it happened in the sixth grade, his life unraveling in the span of a single year. 

 For reasons unknown to the boy, he was forced out of his father’s stable home. From there, he and his older brother went to live with their mother and her boyfriend.  Addicted to crack, mother and boyfriend spent their income supporting that habit, thrusting the family into extreme poverty.  They moved from apartment to apartment, finally ending up in a home with no heat, no drywall on wood skeleton frames, and virtually no provisions. 

 The boys, twelve and thirteen, began hanging out with guys in their new neighborhood, working as low level street dealers for a local drug operation.  The gig paid only fifty dollars a week, but the kids were also allowed to pick out a new outfit and new pair of shoes every Sunday.  (A perk, he noted, that saved him from wearing the same clothes to school each day, an embarrassment he initially suffered after moving in with his mother.) 

 After living in the quasi-abandoned apartment for a few months, child protective services removed the boys, placing them in a group home nearby.  Physically abused by group home staff, the boy and his brother ran.  They returned to their mother’s neighborhood, and within a few weeks the boy was back in juvenile court on delinquency charges. 

After serving nearly a year at a youth detention center, the boy again returned to the neighborhood.  The thirteen-year-old arrived back home to find his brother associated with a gang that didn’t want the boy.  Feeling betrayed, he turned to a rival gang and was taken under the wing of an older gangster. 

Not long after that, the boy was ordered to do an armed robbery.  Things did not go as planned, and people died.  On the run, intra-gang issues flared, and more people died.  He pled guilty and was given multiple life terms.

I met him ten years later and listened to his story.  Unwilling to blame his current situation on any one childhood moment, he rejected the notion of a transformative event, instead insisting that it was all just life. 

However, I could clearly hear an intonation of pride in his voice, and perhaps see a small smile on his tattooed face, when he told me that he was the fifth grade hall monitor.  As if to say, while I refute the suggestion that one person or thing is responsible for my situation, I was in fact good once.     

What is irrefutable is the fact that no one preserved that goodness.  No one fought for this kid.  No one that should have intervened intervened.  No teacher, no social worker, no juvenile justice worker, no one did anything.  Instead, we let this kid, who desperately wanted guidance, choose among the pool of mentors available to him. 

Where was this kid’s hall monitor? ____________________

Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth.  The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public

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

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.

Steve Reba: Enter the Pipeline

The thirteen-year-old sat at the defense table with his mother.  The school principal, serving as prosecutor and the district’s sole witness, occupied the table to their left.  Three administrators from other district schools stared down from their elevated bench. Sitting with the tribunal, indistinguishable in both presence and role, was the hearing officer. When the boy’s mother attempted to ask the principal a question, he would invoke his role as prosecutor.  When the inquiry was directed at the hearing officer, he would explain that he was not a witness.