Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
Constitution: Editorials: Expand juvenile courts
Justice for children ought not depend on what part of the state they live in. But it does. That's because the funding of juvenile courts is left to counties --- the state doesn't contribute a dime. As a result, cases that involve abused, neglected or delinquent children receive minimal attention in some poor counties where the juvenile court is a trailer behind the courthouse and the judge works part-time.
Georgia's failure to meet the needs of its most vulnerable children in abuse cases has been tragically described in recent articles by Atlanta Constitution reporter Jane Hansen. Underfunded and poorly trained social workers are at least part of the problem. Unfortunately, the state's patchwork juvenile justice system is suffering the same kind of neglect. The state is responsible through the court system for the protection or placement of more than 20,000 children every year. The result is that children who lack adequate parental supervision or are removed from abusive situations suffer long delays in the approval of stable placement, in a foster home or with a relative, simply because their voices are the last to be heard.
Only 22 of Georgia's 159 counties have full-time juvenile judges. In 44 counties, judges who agree to hear juvenile cases make an average of $22,000, less than a third the salary of full-time superior court judges. Yet most of these so-called part-time judges travel to three or four rural counties within a single judicial circuit. Several have simply quit because they can't give the professional attention needed to the increasing case load. In the 93 counties where superior court judges also hear juvenile cases, children's lives often remain in limbo because a judge must place murder or other high-profile criminal matters first.
Last year, the Georgia House of Representatives approved H.B. 182 which, for the first time in history, would enable every judicial circuit in the state to have a full-time juvenile court. The bill is before the Senate Judiciary Committee this session, and it ought to receive the urgent attention Chief Justice Robert Benham requested in his state-of-the-judiciary message last week. Of course, there's a $4 million price tag attached to it, which is one reason it may not have sailed through both houses last year.
Lawmakers are being challenged rightly by the governor to boost the quality of education for all of the state's children --- but they also have an obligation to assure the care and safety of the most vulnerable. As Judge Bryant Culpepper, chairman of the state Supreme Court's Child Placement Project points out, juvenile cases are complex and sometimes life-determining for a youngster. The fate of children in tragic family situations involving the courts can't be relegated to leftover spaces, part-time judges and long delays. Approval and funding of H.B. 182 ought to be a priority for the state Senate.
DID YOU KNOW
There is no state funding for juvenile courts.
In 1997 (the latest figures available), there were 20,000 children in state custody. Georgia has 159 counties, in which there are: Full-time juvenile court judges in 22 counties; part-time juvenile court judges in 44 counties; and superior court judges handling cases in 93 counties.
Forty-eight percent of Georgia's population is without access to full-time juvenile court judges.
Source: Supreme Court Child Placement Project
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