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Advocates focus on foster needs
Juvenile justice reform could affect area agencies
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Juvenile stakeholders discussed better meeting the needs of Hall County’s foster children in a meeting held Friday at the CASA Little House on Washington Street in Gainesville.

Judge Cliff Jolliff, who serves on the Juvenile Court of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit covering Hall and Dawson counties, noted that looming over stakeholders’ heads is a juvenile justice reform bill in the state House of Representatives that addresses every aspect of the juvenile code.

“Each of these departments represented here would be affected,” he said.

The bill passed its first legislative hurdle when it came out of committee last week, albeit with several amendments.

Jolliff said one aspect of the bill would fundamentally alter the child-judicial processes by requiring that children ages 14 and over be represented by an attorney with interests exclusively for the child — not the state, and not their parents.

Last year, concerns about the bill’s cost shelved advocates’ hope of reform to a code that hasn’t been amended in more than 40 years.

Juvenile inmate education and well-being costs are expensive for the state, amounting to $91,000 a year.

While the bill’s future remains uncertain, stakeholders are focusing on creating certain futures for Hall County’s foster children. In a county with a population more than 180,000 people, an important part of that is recruiting more foster parents, child welfare leaders said.

The stakeholders meeting came somewhat on the heels of a summit held earlier in the month by the The Northeastern Judicial Circuit Justice for Children.

Statewide experts presented safety, permanency and well-being statistics and facts regarding foster children in Hall County.

“We have 18 families that have applied, but for various reasons, for example because they are elderly and sometimes unable, there are eight active foster homes in Hall County right now,” said Lisa Burt with the Georgia Department of Family Services.

With so many foster children being cared for in other counties, Jolliff said, the logistics of coordinating care is complicated.

“We have parents that don’t know, ‘Am I allowed to do this? Do I need to go here?’ Things like organizing visits with the parents is much more difficult to arrange,” he said.

Jolliff noted that the stakeholders group isn’t an exclusive club. Many people and agencies leave and enter the lives of children in need.

“We want those people to a part of the conversation for helping our children, sharing information,” he said.

The stakeholders will meet again May 17 at the CASA Little House.