Now imagine that the child’s home situation is such that she had to be removed from home. That’s traumatic in itself, of course, and only adds to the trauma caused by the underlying problem of abuse or neglect. This trauma makes understanding the child’s needs and feelings much more difficult.
On Jan. 1, Georgia’s law governing juvenile court drastically changed. Part of the overhaul was a requirement that all children who have been removed by the Department of Family and Children’s Services or otherwise alleged to be neglected, abused or endangered have an attorney.
Cherokee’s juvenile judges, John Sumner and Tony Baker, decided, like many of their colleagues throughout the state, to empower the guardian ad litem as the child’s attorney. A guardian ad litem is an attorney who investigates the child’s case, monitors DFCS and advocates for the child’s best interests.
The guardian ad litem determines the child’s best interests through guidelines in the new juvenile code, training and experience and, to some extent, the child’s desires.
Sometimes, the child’s desires and what the guardian ad litem considers to be the child’s best interests differ. In that situation, the guardian ad litem has a conflict of interest, and the juvenile court appoints an attorney to represent the child.
The child’s attorney helps with the interpretation by advising the child on the law and court process and making certain the judge understands what the child wants.
Critics of the new law claim children do not know what they want or what’s best for them. Perhaps these claims have some merit; however, the critics forget one person knows more about the actions of DFCS, the progress the parents have made, the identity of caring relatives (or “fictive kin” — people so close to the child as to be considered family) willing to take the child in, and the dynamics of the family. That person is the child.
At times, despite the best intentions of everyone involved, the child welfare system overlooks that each child is special, with unique abilities and needs. While families have common issues (i.e. drug abuse is a factor in the majority of DFCS cases), the same solution does not work for every family. Children are not pegs to be fit into systematic holes; they are the clarion call for their families’ situations, and their voices must be heard and understood.
Ignoring their voices has consequences. Unfortunately, too many children “age out” of foster care without a solid plan for life. They feel unappreciated. They’re not bonded with anyone. Many end up in poverty or prison. Those who avoid poverty or prison spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up to their peers who came from better family situations. Fortunately, the General Assembly decided a new strategy was necessary to (partly) address the root causes of foster children starting adulthood at a tremendous disadvantage.
I have the honor of serving as a child’s attorney. While I cannot reveal anything my client has told me because of the attorney-client privilege, the experience has been an awakening. My client has lived four or five lifetimes in the span of 14 years. He knows the foster care system as intimately as any three DFCS caseworkers. Despite everything he has endured, he always bounces back.
My duty is to bring his unique, resilient voice to the people making decisions about his life. My hope is those people will make better decisions based on who he is, what he’s experienced, and what opportunities he wants to pursue. After all, the child welfare system must be responsive to the children for whom is it responsible.
Of course, what the child wants will not always be legally or practically possible. But that’s not the point. The point is to improve the lives of children in foster care. To do so, those children must be heard, and what they say must be correctly interpreted, no matter how foreign their experiences are to policymakers.
The new law is a good start.
Cory DeBord is an attorney at Carver & DeBord, P.C. in Canton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.