Officials talk welfare of children

CONYERS -- The plight of abused and neglected children and how to improve their lives were heavy on the minds of state and local officials who gathered in an all-day workshop Wednesday.

The Georgia Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children hosted a Justice for Children Summit for the Rockdale Judicial Circuit Wednesday in the Carriage Room of the Georgia International Horse Park. Roughly 60 local attorneys, local Department of Family and Children Services workers, education professionals, and state workers gathered to brainstorm and identify policies and practices to improve the child welfare system in the county.

Rockdale County Juvenile Court Judge William Schneider said on Thursday that the summit went well.

"We found out that Rockdale County, as a circuit, was doing a pretty decent job about maintaining families and returning children from foster care," Schneider said.

The judge admitted Thursday that one of the areas in the county that needs improvement involves how often children in deprivation cases are moved around.

Foster homes, which give a child a family, are the desired goal over putting the child in an "institution," a group home or shelter, Schneider said. But he pointed to the limited number of foster homes.

Achieving permanency, or pairing abused or neglected children with a family, also turned out to be the desired goals for Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines, who gave opening remarks at the summit through a videotaped message.

Hunstein pointed to prisons that are "full of" inmates who were abused or neglected as children to illustrate the important role summit attendees have in breaking "the cycle." But, in attempting to help those children, Hunstein reminded the group that their authority could "unnecessarily invade the privacy and integrity of families."

"On the other hand, you must learn enough about a family to ensure that its children are protected from harm," Hunstein said. "Mistakes can have a devastating impact."

Justice Hines, who is chairman of the Committee on Justice for Children, agreed that officials wanted all children to be in a "safe, protected environment and to be with loving families."

"But sometimes this cannot happen and sometimes we have to remove those children and put them in a protective environment," Hines said. "So what we try to do as much as possible is to approximate a loving, protective, nurturing family."

Hines also acknowledged how difficult and demanding the work is for those in the child welfare system, but reiterated how important it was.

The rest of the day included presentations from officials and open, interactive discussions about child deprivation cases.

In one discussion, the group was asked to identify strengths and weaknesses of the foster care system in Rockdale.

Of the strengths, professionals identified good communication where people have a direct line with the court and leaders who desire to improve the system.

Schneider lauded the efforts of the local DFCS, saying they were "careful about pulling the triggers, so to speak."

"I don't see them trying to destroy families without good cause," Schneider said Wednesday.

When pointing to weaknesses of the local system, lack of a public transportation system and lack of resources to mental health assessments and services were identified.

Local attorney Robert Mumford cited lack of confidentiality in the Juvenile Court because of close quarters and thought a bigger facility was needed. Mumford also thought more funding was needed for children who commit serious offenses.

The Committee on Justice for Children started holding Justice for Children Summits throughout the state in 2007.