Recommendation #8: Improve legal advocacy for all parties involved in deprivation cases.
In addition to low levels of child representation, the rate of parents with legal representation was also low – 57% of mothers and 19% of fathers had appointed counsel by the adjudicatory hearing. Files also reflected little action from counsel. Only one discovery motion was found in all the files, documents showed that very few witnesses were called on behalf of parents, and there was no documentation of any objections or amendments to case plans. Often the only discernable legal activity found in the files was done by the SAAGs. While DFCS never lacked representation by a SAAG in any of the files reviewed, the legal work lacked consistency and thoroughness. Court orders were often late and expired, factual inconsistencies were apparent from order to order, and new issues documented in the case were never adjudicated.
Improved legal advocacy for parent attorneys can include: conducting thorough reviews of all case plan goals to ensure that they relate to the causes of deprivation; reviewing all orders for accuracy before submission to the court for signature; mandating specialized training for persons to act as representation at deprivation hearings; requiring parent attorneys receive a minimum number of juvenile law continuing legal education (CLE) hours each year; and using subpoenas to ensure children are in court. Recommendations for SAAGS include: reviewing orders over the life of a case to find factual inconsistencies; improving case staffing procedures to include inquiry about new issues of deprivation; and using subpoenas, if necessary, to ensure children are in court. Recommendations to improve advocacy by GALs include: ensuring that children are brought to court for all hearings; conducting independent investigations on each case; submission of written GAL reports when appropriate; and conducting reviews of all orders for accuracy before submission to the court. Finally, efforts to expand the existing CASA network to all courts in Georgia would improve child advocacy practice for cold cases. Improvements in legal advocacy for all parties will help to ensure that deprivation proceedings are fair and just for all.
Recommendation #9: Improve judicial oversight on permanency issues.
Permanency for children in foster care is directly affected by the relationship between the courts, DFCS and legal representation of all parties. While the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act succinctly placed responsibility for the best interest of the child on the shoulders of the court, file reviews revealed a lack of judicial oversight in many jurisdictions and in many forms. In one metro county, a child’s case had rulings made by six different judges and custody orders had expired four times. Georgia deprivation courts should adopt the “One Child One Judge” philosophy which requires one judge to preside over a case for its duration. The vast majority of SAAGs surveyed believed this to be a beneficial policy.
Courts should hold all parties to a high standard to ensure that the required language is included in all deprivation orders, that all hearings are held in timely compliance with the law, and that all parties comply with state and federal regulations. Cold cases did not fare well on legal standards: 41% had no evidence of a diligent search, half had no legal documentation of a permanency hearing within one year of coming into care, only one quarter