UGA study impacts Fulton County Office of Child Advocate Attorney

UGA study impacts Fulton County Office of the Child Advocate Attorney

Athens, Ga. – The results of a recent study are changing how the Fulton County Office of the Child Advocate Attorney operates. The University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government conducted the study as part of a consent decree in the federal civil rights lawsuit Kenny A v. Perdue. The study assessed the number of children a child advocate lawyer can represent and still provide constitutionally adequate representation.

The Kenny A lawsuit addressed whether Fulton and DeKalb counties were assuring adequate representation of children in “deprivation” cases, in which the Division of Family and Children Services sought to protect children from abuse and neglect. In February 2006, the U.S. District Court ruled that the children in these counties had a right to counsel. As part of the consent decree that ensued, Fulton County contracted with the Vinson Institute to study caseload and practice pressures in the Fulton County Office of the Child Advocate Attorney.

Karen Baynes, an associate director at the Vinson Institute, led the study team, which included UGA School of Law Associate Professor and Director of Civil Clinics Alexander W. Scherr. The study centered on a six-week time study of child advocate attorneys’ work and an in-depth review of 10 years of caseload data. It included focus groups with child advocates, file reviews, court observations and consultations with many different role players in the juvenile court system.

“This study assessed the relationship between caseload or practice pressures and the quality of representation,” Scherr said. “The study team had to translate the constitutional mandate for adequate representation into recommendations for the size of staff and the numbers of children represented by each attorney.”

The study concluded that existing caseloads did not permit child advocates to meet the standards of practice set by the parties to Kenny A. It also found that both internal office reforms and changes to juvenile court practice further affected the ability of child advocates to meet those standards. Without any changes to the office or the court, the team recommended a caseload of only 80 children per attorney, roughly half of the current caseload. As office and court practices improve, the study suggested that the caseload could increase, to a maximum of 120 children per attorney with all reforms in place.

“The team’s tiered recommendation represents a distinctive approach to assessing adequacy of representation. No lawyer practices in isolation,” Scherr said. “This study acknowledges the importance of office organization and external practice pressures on the ability of an individual attorney to represent clients capably and ethically.”

As an example, Scherr noted the importance of child advocates spending extended time with their child clients. Before Kenny A, advocates would spend an average of no more than six minutes per year with each child, “too little to meet constitutional demands. But to increase this time, it would require not only decreasing caseloads but also changes in office practice, in DFCS’ sharing of information, in funding for travel and in court case scheduling. The study sought to account for all of these factors in setting overall caseloads,” Scherr said.

The results of the study have received close attention, not only throughout Georgia but across the nation, as other states are trying to cope with the increasing demand for a coherent and professional approach to the representation of children in deprivation cases, according to Scherr.

The parties in Kenny A accepted the study results without argument. Fulton County is now implementing the study, under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor.

In addition to Baynes and Scherr, the study team included Senior Public Service Associate John O’Looney and Public Service Assistant Mary Hermann, both of the Vinson Institute.