In a year’s time, decades of experience in Hall County Juvenile Court have been lost.
In 2013, Hall County’s two juvenile judges had a combined experience of almost 60 years. Come January, the number of judges moves to three, but their combined experience in juvenile court can be counted on one hand.
On Oct. 8, attorneys Alison Toller and Bo Weber Jr. were appointed Juvenile Court judges after an interview process conducted by Hall County Superior Court judges. Toller previously worked in the Hall County District Attorney’s office, while Weber worked in real estate and banking law.
Retired judge Mary Carden, a 36-year veteran of Hall County Juvenile Court, has three decades of experience more than the two attorneys recently appointed to the bench.
Juvenile Judge Cliff Jolliff, retiring at the end of the year, is ending a 24-year career in this field.
Carden, who retired in 2013, said she is dismayed at the appointments, citing the knowledge needed to be successful in that post.
“I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked. I just knew that there was a strong field of candidates, and I just assumed that whoever was selected would be one of those people who had qualifications,” she said.
Carden’s opinions were echoed by several fellow litigators practicing in Hall County, but none chose to speak with The Times on the record for fear of reprisal.
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin expressed her confidence in the two recent appointees.
A member of Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver’s office said she would defer comment to Court Administrator Reggie Forrester. He said the decision was unanimous among the four Superior Court judges: Gosselin, Oliver, Andrew Fuller and Jason Deal.
Attempts to reach Fuller and Deal were unsuccessful.
The Times obtained a list of applicants for the positions, with several names carrying a long history of work in the juvenile court system.
On the list was Nicki Vaughan, who now works in the Hall County Public Defender’s Office and is one of the co-founders of Georgia Court-Appointed Special Advocates. The organization, started 26 years ago, assigns volunteers to help represent children’s best interests in cases involving abuse or neglect.
Vaughan declined to comment.
Others on the list included adoption attorneys and child attorneys.
“To a little bit, I was a little bit hurt by it. I felt the appointments were almost to say anyone can do this job. You don’t have to have any experience, just pick somebody,” Carden said.
Toller rebutted Carden’s claims, touting her experience in criminal cases involving child victims and treatment court, over which she will succeed Jolliff in presiding. For the last year and a half, she has focused on custody matters, having spent a couple of years on the Judicial Citizen Review Panel.
“I believe I’m qualified for the position, and I believe I will act in the children of Hall and Dawson Counties’ best interests,” she said.
One of the applicants, attorney Clint Bearden, said questions asked during the process revolved around temperament and philosophy.
“There was discussion about the fact that of course juvenile court judges have effectively kind of two dynamics,” Bearden said. “On the criminal side, they have a dynamic of dealing with youth offenders, And then on the civil side, they have essentially a family law type of practice in that regard, looking out for the best interest of minor children.”
Bearden said more of his work is seen in State and Superior Court. Because most attorneys are appointed to cases, it’s “hit or miss” for attorneys to work in juvenile court, he said.
“Juvenile judges are kind of difficult for that purpose, because some folks are going to be well qualified on one side, maybe not as well qualified on the other side,” Bearden said.
With the juvenile code being rewritten Jan. 1, Bearden said it will be as fresh to a seasoned juvenile court veteran as to a newcomer.
But for Carden, connections with agencies to help children in foster care are unwritten benefits.
“That makes it difficult for somebody new, because that’s not really spelled out in any one place. You have to learn that over time by experience, by trial and error, and by knowing who to call and where you can find the answer,” she said.
Attempts to reach Weber for comment were unsuccessful.
Carden’s particular passion is for children phasing out of the system after they reach 18. Without someone to assume their care, she said, a large group of foster children become homeless.
“We have learned by trial and error and working very, very hard pulling information from both federal and state agencies how to get all these benefits for our older foster kids, so they have scholarships to college or to technical school, where they can get funding for graduation expenses and even emergency funds once they reach age 18,” Carden said. “That’s information that you can’t replace anywhere, and it really puts at jeopardy some of our older children who are going to be leaving the system and nobody there to catch them.”
Filling out college applications, as well as signing them up for SAT and ACT exams, are a part of conferences that Carden began eight years ago for these mature foster children. She hopes to see these continue for the now young adults that need help, she said.
“I’ve offered to do them for them this year and they haven’t followed up on it,” Carden said.
Jolliff and Juvenile Court Judge Lindsay Burton have expressed their support for the new juvenile judges in previous interviews with The Times, but attempts to reach them again for comment were unsuccessful.
Toller said she hopes to continue providing children with these same resources during her tenure.
“I do think one of my roles will be to encourage children to take advantage of those opportunities, but also to encourage the community to provide resources to those individuals,” she said.