From Savannah to metro Atlanta to Hall County, the biggest factor seen in the state’s new juvenile code, said Juvenile Court Judge Lindsay Burton, is that “everyone’s talking about more hearings.”
On Jan. 1, 2014, the rewritten juvenile code took effect, leading to more hearings and more child representation.
Each child in juvenile court is required to have legal representation, which cost $223,000 for Hall County in 2014, Hall County Public Information Officer Katie Crumley said.
“It’s a huge additional expense for the county,” Burton said. “I will tell you, however, that I have seen better outcomes for kids with child attorneys.”
In addition to representation, children in foster care have six hearings within a nine-month period, which puts children and their stakeholders in a courtroom more often. As a result, Burton said permanent solutions for children in the system have been found quicker.
“It can be seen in two ways,” Burton said. “It puts a huge strain on the juvenile court system itself ... but the practical part of it is I see families a lot more, and I think that’s good for children.”
The frequency of hearings also provides a check on the Division of Family and Children Services, Burton said, when a child is in custody and parental rights are terminated.
“When I see (DFCS) in court on a regular basis, that really holds their feet to the fire to make sure we are moving forward and that they’re getting done what they need to get done,” Burton said.
Children in dependency cases, which refer to the well-being and residence of the child, are visited by Court-Appointed Special Advocates. Hall-Dawson CASA staff attorney Kristin Lesutis said the first year of the new code has worked well in creating a team for each child.
“We are always for best interest, as you know. Even if the child is a teenager and they say, ‘I want to go home to mom,’ we might not agree and we would not advocate for that,” she said. “I would just say the CASAs work very well with the children’s attorneys and provides an even stronger advocacy for the child.”
Another $162,000 was spent for parental representation in 2014 in Juvenile Court, Crumley said.
Each CASA, Lesutis said, visits an assigned child every month and makes contact before each hearing.
“If we’re doing a hearing in 90 days instead of what would have been four months. They would see the kids quicker,” she said.
Outside of an expedited hearing schedule, the responsibilities of volunteers in the CASA program are unchanged.
“They just find themselves waiting in court a lot longer because things are taking longer,” Lesutis said. “Now that they’ve added the additional judge, we’re hoping the schedule will be a lot more manageable.”
Burton, the most senior judge in Hall County Juvenile Court, is aided by Judges Alison Toller and Bo Weber Jr.
Burton recalls only a handful of cases when a family with multiple children required multiple attorneys.
“Whether or not it’s one child or six children, all start out with the same attorney,” she said. “That’s not always the situation until the end of the case.”
A case where such a need would arise would be if some of the children in the family wanted to return home and others wanted to stay in foster care.
The presence of the children’s attorney also can act as a motivation for parents in the system to meet the goals for family reunification.
“Even a mom or dad who’s struggling to get on track, it makes a difference that they have to come into court and they need to hear from the child attorney,” Burton said.
A big focus for next year, Burton said, will be Children in Need of Services to allow for families to receive help before reaching the courtroom.
“Through CHINS cases, we’ve been able to identify children and families that were on the cusp,” she said. “They were about to get DFCS involved or child’s making really bad choices — bad enough choices that could end them in delinquency court.”