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Broken Bonds: Foster kids have team working on placement
Judges, attorneys, case workers, CASAs help children find homes
A framed piece of art bearing Judge Cliff Jolliff’s name sits in his office and was made for him by a youth who went through the Hall County juvenile court system.

Special report

Today: Judges hold these children’s fate in their hands. Learn the court system and the players.

At 8:30 a.m., the briefs are organized and the coloring books are gathered. The robe goes on for Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Lindsay Burton.

“Sometimes if you have busy hands, it makes things go faster,” said Burton, as she offered a child a choice of coloring books from a bin.

Wrapping around the juvenile courtroom are representatives from the Division of Family and Children Services, the attorneys for the children and parents and the Court-Appointed Special Advocate.

The child, who was brought with the help of a transporter to the courtroom, sits on the back bench as Burton asks the child’s parents questions.

During questioning, the child raises a hand to ask Burton if she knows the child’s favorite teacher.

“I don’t think I have met them,” Burton said.

The child then turns back to the coloring book, flipping feverishly through the pages to find the best one.

“I like interacting with kids, and you’d be surprised what you hear from kids,” Burton said. “It’s pretty telling when they don’t want to go home to mom and dad. It gives you just sort of an idea of how bad maybe things were, because almost all children want to go home.”

The players

New DFCS case managers begin learning the ropes in court, collaborating with a senior case manager on the cases at hand. Their presence in the courtroom is the embodiment of a state investment into DFCS, leading to 175 more staff working for the department statewide.

Case managers contact families to keep tabs.

“We’re talking about intimate details with the family, sometimes things that they don’t want to share with anybody, so they get to know a lot about the family,” said Hall and Dawson County DFCS Director Holly Campolong. “The strengths, that’s what we try to build upon, is what they already have good going. ... Many times, it depends on the family.”

The dynamic in each case is different, as caseworkers try to gauge the progress of the parents in treatment.

“Some families are very closed off. They know not to talk to us. And other families say, ‘Come on in. We’ll sit down and chat,’ and they don’t want us to leave,” Campolong said.

Children, no matter their age, are appointed attorneys at the time of removal who will be present during the preliminary protective hearing. At this meeting within 72 hours of the removal order, a child is either released back to the parents or remains in state custody.

“The child’s attorney is there to ensure that the child’s wishes are made known to the court and, to the best of their ability, are taken into consideration and followed. Some children’s mental abilities, psychological issues or even just age — some of them, obviously, we have to put ourselves in the child’s shoes and ask ourselves, ‘What would a child in this situation want?’” said child attorney Kellie Rogers.

Despite almost anything that goes on in the home, judges, CASAs and attorneys agree a child will consistently want to go back.

“A 10-year-old boy wants to go home to his mom and dad’s house, even though it’s horrifically uninhabitable. No water, no power, rodents — he still wants to go home and live with his mom and dad. And so that child attorney has to advocate for their client’s, the 10-year-old boy, his wishes,” Burton said.

Part-time helpers

With just 25 foster care homes in Hall County, gathering information about the child is difficult. DFCS case workers, CASAs and other concerned parties travel often to South Georgia to make face-to-face visits with children placed there.

“From the standpoint of the child attorney, it makes it difficult for us to maintain the level of interaction that we should have and need to have with these children to build a rapport with them, to build a bond with them so they are comfortable talking freely with us about what they really want,” Rogers said.

Marie and Roy Mueller, a husband-and-wife CASA team, have spent the last seven years working with the organization. After hearing a speech about CASA, receiving a CASA postcard and feeling inspired by a piece of Scripture, Marie Mueller said it was meant to be.

“Three different signs in less than three days, and we were hooked,” Marie said.

Compared to the 25 or more cases that a DFCS case manager may take on, the volunteer CASA will usually take less than three, said volunteer supervisor Cory Buckley.

“We can take one case, or two, or however many we want and obviously spend a lot more time in the details of the case,” Roy Mueller said.

Buckley’s calling came from a similar and more literal sign to join CASA 22 years ago.

“I saw a sign at the church I attended back in 1992, because my kids went through a similar situation with being abused by their biological dad, I thought I can help some other children,” she said.

While some of the volunteers have a background in social work and child psychology, others are sometimes retirees and residents looking to do a little more with their time.

“I think it’s an eye-opener for some of them,” Buckley said. “I think that they’ve never realized that what they see goes on in Hall County or Dawson County. ... For the most part, I try to prepare them during their 40 hours of training on what they’re going to see, what to expect, how to handle it. But still, when you go out and see it for yourself, it could be shocking to them.”

The Muellers said they find the tag-team approach to the advocate job is an easier, collaborative way to best understand the home situation. A second set of eyes can catch an extra tidbit of information for the CASA report.

“Sometimes the kids are more comfortable talking to one of us than the other, and if there are multiple children, we can talk to them together or separately,” Marie Mueller said. “I think it’s beneficial that we can discuss it.”

All rise

With a rewritten juvenile code that took effect Jan. 1, judges now organize their cases under a tighter timeline.

“That’s six hearings in a nine-month time period,” Burton said. “That’s a lot more hearings, and so that puts a stress on the whole system.”

After the preliminary protective hearing, an adjudication hearing is held with 15 days. Information at this hearing explains what abuse or neglect is believed to be present in the family’s home. A review is held within 35 days of the disposition, in essence what will happen with the child, and the next review is held within four months.

For children younger than 7, a permanency hearing is held no later than nine months after foster care begins. If they’re older than 7, the hearing comes within the first year of foster care.

Fresh perspective

In August, Judge Cliff Jolliff told The Times he would be retiring from the juvenile judge post in Hall County. A 24-year staple of the court system, he will continue to work until the end of the year.

“He’s laid the framework for us, and we just need to pick up the reins and move forward,” Burton said. “He’s been a wonderful mentor. He has stated that he’s going to take about six months to just sit back but promises and promises he will answer my calls whenever I have a question for him, because I’m sure there’ll be many.”

On Wednesday, two juvenile court judges were appointed in the search for Jolliff’s replacement and to fill an added third position. Attorneys Alison Toller and Bo Weber Jr. were selected for those roles by the Superior Court judges.

Burton said she was excited to see the decision made.

“I don’t know that that means I’m going to be free to do a lot of other things. I’m just hoping we won’t be in court until 8 o’clock every Monday and Wednesday,” Burton said.

But no matter the time available, she knows things can’t be rushed.

Every question is vital to reaching the right resolution.

“When we’re talking about where children are living and whether or not they get to return to their biological parents,” she said, “those are major decisions and things you just can’t rush.”

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