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Budget allows judge addition to ease juvenile court schedule
Judge Cliff Jolliff listens in Hall County Juvenile Court.

A third juvenile judge will be added to the roster of two with officials’ approval of the Hall County budget.

The Board of Commissioners approved a $90.268 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year securing the salary after county officials made the case for its need.

Judge Cliff Jolliff, who has served for two decades as a juvenile court judge, said that strain has recently become a prominent part of the job.

“I hope we will be able to have a more sane schedule,” he said. “Especially in cases involving (Division of Family and Children Services), and other dependency cases, because we have to spend as much time on those cases, brought by relatives, as we do when DFCS does.”

Connie Stephens, executive director of the Court Appointed Special Advocate program of Hall and Dawson counties, said the staff of her office also felt there was a need for another judge.

“Our caseloads are increasing, resulting in judges having less time to make crucial decisions pertaining to a child’s life,” she said.

CASA volunteers are appointed to each dependency case to advocate the best interest of the child, making appearances in court along with the child’s attorney, who vouches for the child’s specific personal preference.

“Children are our greatest resource,” she added. “The time and money spent on these kids will have a positive impact on generations to come.”

Only one commissioner voted against adding the position.

Craig Lutz, who represents South Hall, said he didn’t feel the additional funding was adequately justified.

“I was looking for more information. But they really already had the votes, so they didn’t need to provide more information,” he said.

He said he was also concerned that Dawson County was not contributing to the salary.

“We typically share those judges with Dawson County, and Dawson County isn’t pitching in,” he said.

“I didn’t feel like they had done a good enough job of validating, other than anecdotal things ... I think there could have been a lot more dialogue about it,” he added.

But Jolliff said the addition had been a “long time coming.”

“The Superior Court judges by law have the responsibility to create juvenile court judgeships, and I think they’ve seen over the past couple years how hard it’s been for us to do our work,” he said.

Jolliff said on some days matters are scheduled back to back, with no breaks, running from 8:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night on days when DFCS presents cases.

“It’s hard on volunteers; on lawyers who have families; judges who have small children, like Judge (Lindsay) Burton,” he said. “We just don’t have enough days to do it.”

Burton, a former prosecutor in the circuit, assumed the role in September after Judge Mary Carden retired in December. She was appointed by the four Superior Court judges.

A family consultant at a private agency, one of several that accommodate foster care and adoptions when DFCS cannot, stressed that strains to the system have reverberating impacts for children.

Maribeth Nolan, with Alpharetta-based FaithBridge Foster Care, said for example if an order is filed late, it could add three months, instead of 30 days, to the process to finalize an adoption.

“Even our little ones, when they’re in limbo, they know,” Nolan said. “They can’t go to grandma’s house; they can’t stay at a friend’s house overnight. Life’s just not normal until you’re adopted.”

And advocates were finding foster parents and volunteers often would wait in court, only to have a hearing canceled because of packed calendars, a phenomenon that emerged from a “perfect storm” of outside factors, she said.

“There was a steadily increasing number of kids, and we were being asked to do more with the kids we already have,” Nolan said. “By Christmas 2012, we could see a pretty big jump, and that can be for any number of reasons, even just general growth, but the number of children has definitely increased. Additionally, the juvenile code does require more.”

The code overhaul, enacted Jan. 1, increased the baseline of services mandated for juveniles, including the appointment of their attorney.

The overall office budget is growing about $260,000, figures show, and the majority will go toward the judgeship, including any additional staffing required. The job will be posted for three months.

Jolliff said juvenile court will still be operating out of two courtrooms, which should not present a space problem.

“Among the demands on our time, a lot of it is done in the office,” he said.