Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
Constitution: Editorials: Empower child advocate
When Gov. Roy Barnes fills the new position of child advocate, he ought to consult the political scorecard he's been keeping on his friends and foes. And pick someone who scored badly.
The bill creating a child advocate's office sailed through the state House Monday and is expected to pass the Senate with similar ease. The hard part will be setting up an autonomous office --- free of the governor's control.
If the office is to succeed, it must be headed by an independent and dynamic leader who can put Georgia's children ahead of politics. The advocate must not hesitate to expose failures even when those failures embarrass the governor.
The legislation setting up the office of the child advocate empowers it to investigate the deaths of children known by the state's child welfare agency, review complaints, recommend policy changes and monitor the facilities where children are housed. The advocate can also subpoena records, interview any child in custody, visit facilities unannounced, refer a case to the GBI for criminal investigation and go to the press.
During the House debate, some members called the office another layer of bureaucracy. But, as Rep. Georganna Sinkfield (D-Atlanta) argued, "What is the value of a child's life? If it requires big government, so be it."
Georgia has a poor record of safeguarding children. An Atlanta Constitution investigation revealed dozens of children who fell through the child welfare cracks and lost their lives as a consequence.
Critical to the advocate's success is the ability to file legal challenges when child protective services balks at taking action. Unfortunately, the Georgia bill stops short of permitting its advocate to sue. Nor does it specify that the advocate must be an attorney, an essential criterion in other states.
Instead, the advocate can seek a "writ of mandamus," asking the court to order a specific action that would fix the problem. Barnes insists the state constitution stands in the way of granting advocates the right to sue, but legal experts dispute that excuse. The more likely reason is that Barnes wants to retain some control over this new office.
If that control means that the advocate is reduced to attacking problems with a toothpick instead of a stick, then the Legislature ought to step in and strengthen the office.
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