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Final Report

BACKGROUND

The number of child abuse and neglect cases being brought to the attention of courts has increased dramatically since the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1980. This Act increased the role of courts and child welfare agencies by making them responsible for achieving stable, permanent placements for children brought into state care, in addition to their traditional role of ensuring safety for those children.

In the years since that Act was passed, child protective caseloads have increased dramatically, as has the complexity of child protective cases. At the same time, federal and state laws and regulations have increased the courts' responsibilities in these cases. In response to the increasing burdens on courts with regard to child abuse and neglect cases, Congress allocated funds in the 1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act for grants to the highest court in each state. The grant program was designed to assist courts in improving how they process child abuse and neglect cases by directing states to accomplish three things:

  1. conduct an assessment of how child abuse and neglect cases are handled by the courts;
  2. develop a plan for system improvements; and
  3. implement the improvements.

The assessment was conducted in the following manner:

First, the Supreme Court appointed an Advisory Committee to assist in the assessment process and develop recommendations. Second, the Advisory Committee identified the focus of the project. The four key areas in which the Advisory Committee perceived that improvements might be needed were:

  1. delays in the court process;
  2. termination of parental rights and length of stay in foster care;
  3. resources available to the court including staff, physical plant, and social service options affecting judicial performance; and
  4. quality and adequacy of information available to the courts.

The assessment was then designed to capture information in these key areas and to solicit input from all types of courts where juvenile court cases are heard, including jurisdictions with superior court judges hearing juvenile court cases, jurisdictions with full-time or part-time juvenile court judges hearing juvenile court cases, and jurisdictions with full-time or part-time associate juvenile court judges hearing juvenile court cases. This is the only study of this scope and size that has been conducted regarding the juvenile courts in Georgia. The assessment involved two phases: statewide mail surveys and in-depth site assessments. Mail surveys were sent to 125 judges with juvenile court jurisdiction, all juvenile court clerks, all 159 Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) county offices, and 79 Special Assistant Attorneys General (SAAG) representing DFCS. Mail survey responses were received from 71 judges with juvenile court jurisdiction, representing 130 counties; 90 juvenile court clerks, representing 89 counties; 204 DFCS workers, representing 122 counties; and 46 SAAGs.

The second phase consisted of in-depth site assessments in ten counties selected to represent the diversity of courts hearing juvenile matters. The sites were chosen to provide a representative sample of Georgia courts in terms of court type, juvenile court caseload, geographic location, and resources available to the court. The site assessments included review of 502 court case files; observation of 440 scheduled court hearings ranging from detention hearings to termination of parental rights hearings; and interviews with judges, court clerks, DFCS workers and attorneys involved in deprivation cases.

Report

The Advisory Committee has completed two of the three directives of the federal grant: conduct an assessment of how deprivation cases are handled by the courts and develop a plan for system improvements. The results of these activities are contained in this report. The Georgia Court Improvement Plan (Georgia Plan) describes recommendations which are specifically tailored for Georgia and identifies the assessment results from which the recommendations arose. The Georgia Plan was developed by the Advisory Committee after extensive study of the NCSC data analysis of file reviews, court observations and mail surveys. The NCSC Assessment Report contains fifteen recommendations identifying strategies for improving juvenile court practice in Georgia and can be obtained from the AOC. In addition to the information studied by the NCSC, the Advisory Committee analyzed interview and survey comments and conducted a more detailed examination in areas of particular concern to the Advisory Committee. Most importantly, the Advisory Committee drew upon the combined expertise of its nine members who have all been involved in child welfare and juvenile justice issues in Georgia for many years.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Based on the findings from the assessment, the Advisory Committee makes the following recommendations for deprivation cases. These recommendations, listed below with the general goals identified to implement them, primarily focus on refining and enhancing the system that is already in place.

  1. DEVELOP AND IMPLEMENT IMPROVED, UNIFORM METHODS OF RECORD-KEEPING AND COURT MANAGEMENT OF JUVENILE COURT CASELOADS.
    1. Develop and implement an accurate system of tracking and monitoring the court process involving children in foster care and relative placements.
    2. Develop and implement a mandatory statewide system for maintaining juvenile court records that uses uniform definitions, uniform reporting methods, and uniform methods of gathering and compiling statistics, as specified in Uniform Juvenile Court Rules.
    3. Expand computerization and court record-keeping software, including automated caseload management systems, to all juvenile courts with a long-term goal of a partially integrated system accessible to a variety of agencies involved with the juvenile court system, including the courts, the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), the Department of Children and Youth Services (DCYS) and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).
    4. Encourage every county to participate in programs to assist courts in managing juvenile court caseloads, particularly the Permanent Homes Program, and facilitate the expansion of such programs.
  2. INCREASE EDUCATION AND TRAINING AND PROVIDE CROSS-TRAINING AND TRIAL MANUALS FOR ALL PERSONS WORKING WITH JUVENILE COURT CASES.
    1. Provide comprehensive cross-training to judges, attorneys, DFCS personnel and court services workers regarding the impact of their actions on the speed and efficiency by which a child is moved to a permanent placement.
    2. Ensure that each group of participants in the system has a training manual (i.e. trial manual, bench book, practice guide) that addresses a standard list of topics suggested for inclusion in each book.
    3. Incorporate information regarding current practices into regular training seminars.
    4. Ensure that all participants in the juvenile court process have access to information regarding resources and services, including grant opportunities, that are related to juvenile court issues.
    5. Encourage judges' participation in ongoing committees, commissions, and inter-agency groups that exchange information and develop uniform policies and procedures regarding juvenile court matters.
    6. Support the existence of a forum in each county or circuit for the formalized, regular exchange of information among judges, court personnel, DFCS personnel, and representatives of community social services organizations.
    7. Encourage the development and implementation of a procedure for direct communication between judges with juvenile court jurisdiction and DFCS that will create an environment conducive to addressing statewide policy issues.
    8. Assist the development of resources such as the Georgia Indigent Defense Council Juvenile Advocacy Division to provide support, training, and resources for attorneys working in juvenile courts across the state.
  3. DEVELOP AND DISTRIBUTE STANDARDS OF PRACTICE FOR JUDGES WITH JUVENILE COURT JURISDICTION, ATTORNEYS PRACTICING IN JUVENILE COURT, AND COURT PERSONNEL WORKING ON JUVENILE COURT CASES.
    1. Promote the regular collection and dissemination of information regarding judicial practices among judges exercising juvenile court jurisdiction.
    2. Advocate for the establishment of standards of practice for judges with juvenile court jurisdiction, to the extent that such standards are not present in existing statutes and rules.
    3. Encourage judges to examine judicial practice norms, to promote uniformity in implementation of rules and laws, and to collect and disseminate information to assist in this endeavor.
    4. Facilitate the development and dissemination of standards of practice for attorneys practicing in juvenile court.
    5. Encourage judges with juvenile court jurisdiction to require attorneys in their courts to comply with standards of practice developed for such attorneys, especially the training requirements recommended in such standards.
    6. Support the creation and dissemination of standards of practice for court personnel working with juvenile court cases.
    7. Suggest that judges with juvenile court jurisdiction require court personnel to comply with standards of practice developed for those persons, and assist them in meeting the training requirements recommended in such standards.
  4. ENSURE REPRESENTATION OF ALL PARTIES, INCLUDING CHILDREN WHO ARE THE SUBJECT OF THE PROCEEDINGS, AT ALL STAGES OF DECISION MAKING BY THE COURTS.
    1. Ensure that every child is represented at every critical stage of the juvenile court process.
    2. Encourage the provision of at least one full-time attorney to represent deprived children in each juvenile court or circuit where there is a full-time juvenile court judge and the caseload indicates this need, or for the retainment of the services of a single attorney or firm to represent deprived juveniles in jurisdictions where the caseload does not necessitate a full-time position.
    3. Adopt statewide procedures which assure that indigent parents have access to appointed counsel, understand the court procedures, and potential outcomes in juvenile court actions.
    4. Explore the rights and needs of relatives who are involved in juvenile deprivation actions and adopt statewide procedures to ensure that they understand the court procedures and consequences of juvenile court actions.
  5. PROVIDE STATE FUNDING FOR A JUVENILE COURT JUDGE IN EVERY COUNTY OR CIRCUIT, AND PROVIDE FOR FULL-TIME JUDGES WHEREVER THE WORKLOAD IS SUFFICIENT.
    1. Advocate for a state-funded juvenile court judge to hear juvenile court cases in every county or circuit, and wherever the workload merits full-time status, for this to be a full-time position.
    2. Explore options allowing juvenile courts to have jurisdiction over procedural matters benefiting juveniles who are the subject of deprivation proceedings, including legitimations, guardianships, and name changes.

DETAILS OF THE ASSESSMENT PROCESS

The number of court case files reviewed was a percentage of each site's 1993 deprivation filings. The files chosen were randomly selected from those in which the originating action was filed between January 1, 1993 and December 31, 1993. In some sites files originating before or after 1993 were examined because there were too few cases originating in 1993 to comprise a valid sample. The number of hearings selected to be observed was also a percentage of total deprivation filings, but in some counties the number of hearings actually held was smaller than the number selected to comprise the sample. The hearings observed were chosen as a random sample of the scheduled court hearings for a period of time during the study (originally set as June 1995 - September 1995). In some sites, however, so few court hearings occurred that all scheduled hearings were observed, and in some sites the observation period was extended until January 1996 so an adequate number of hearings could be observed.

The project design and data analysis was conducted with the assistance of consultants from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law. The data collection was completed by AOC staff with the assistance of law student interns.

IMPLEMENTATION COMMITTEE

To facilitate the implementation of these recommendations, the Advisory Committee suggests the creation of an Implementation Committee to serve in an advisory capacity to the project.
It is recommended that the Implementation Committee include:

  1. the president of the Council of Superior Court Judges or designee;
  2. at least one superior court judge hearing juvenile court cases;
  3. the president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ);
  4. the immediate past president of CJCJ;
  5. the president-elect of CJCJ;
  6. at least one additional juvenile court judge;
  7. at least one part-time juvenile court judge (in addition to or included in one of the above categories);
  8. the Director of the AOC;
  9. a representative of DHR-DFCS;
  10. a member of the state bar who has experience in juvenile issues;
  11. a community volunteer involved with the juvenile court system; and
  12. a representative of a community organization involved with the juvenile justice system.

The Advisory Committee anticipates that the Administrative Office of the Courts will facilitate the implementation of each of the five recommendations during the remainder of the project period. Understanding that resources are limited, the Advisory Committee has included with the recommendations only the tasks they view as most attainable in the remaining two years of this project. The Advisory Committee is developing a detailed plan of action for accomplishing the tasks identified to be provided the Supreme Court and the Implementation Committee.