An Outsider’s Reflection on the Georgia Juvenile Courts and Justice for Children

By:     Martha Guraro  

Martha GuraroMs. Martha Guraro comes from Ethiopia - a nation in the Eastern Africa Region well-known for being the birth place of great coffee.  Martha had a summer fellowship within the JC/AOC, Division of Communications, Children, Families and the Courts.

As a Child Rights advocate and a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders (https://yali.state.gov/mwf/), it has been instrumental to learn about the system of justice for children in the United States, and its different actors and role players who ensure the system works for children. 

Coming from a country and a continent where governments often do not formulate policies that prioritize children and where we have close to no budget allocation toward the child welfare and juvenile justice system, it is heartwarming and encouraging for me to understand that millions of dollars are allocated by both the state and national governments of the US for this discipline.

I can clearly understand the gravity of these investments from observing some of the juvenile courts in this state and noticing the number of different people trying to protect the best interest of the child (child advocates, case workers, child attorneys, Court Appointed Special Advocates, the Guardians ad Litem, and so on). It is fascinating for me, as a child rights advocate, to notice the way the different actors are all working toward determining and ensuring the best interest of the child. I found the judges whose juvenile courts I have had the opportunity to observe to be very active in engaging the different parties to ensure that they get the whole picture of the given case. They were engaging the children and parents, both biological and foster, and in some cases possible adoptive parents as well. I also observed that these judges are particularly focused on asking questions with regard to change of schools of the children, medical matters, and so on. I must say that in my country as well as most nations in Africa, having this kind of system where different parties are working together for the best interest of the child is just a wish and a vision that may not materialize in the near future. 

As South African leader Nelson Mandela once said,  

“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” 

It is true that there are some living challenges that the system observes from time to time, as I have observed specially around the foster care system. I noticed that the State of Georgia, at the moment, is having the highest number of children in foster care system, which is around 15,000 children. There are several challenges that these children face with regard to their placements and related issues. What I have taken as a lesson, though, is that response mechanism of having the different actors working together to ensure that the challenge is addressed. The Committee on Justice for Children, for instance, is engaging the different actors on the ground and within the different communities of the State to raise awareness and refresh the required polices and standards of the system. Furthermore, the academic institution that I had the pleasure to spend a week with, the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law is embarking on a project this fall to assess kinship care as a possible alternative. My takeaway here is that when challenges arise, we just have to work toward addressing the challenges through the different systems and institutions that might even create a new way of working and a system that can be even more productive beyond addressing the immediate challenge. 

As opposed to the traditional function of delivering justice to people, it is amazing how judicial institutions and courts can provide a great example in setting up some specific programs to change a child’s life. At the Fulton County Juvenile Court, I have observed the different programs that greatly support children in overcoming their life challenges that have different causes. A case at point, among other programs, is the flagship program that they have, called the Leadership and Educational Advancement Program (LEAP), where children with dependency or delinquency issues get a second chance to cop-up with their education and pass the necessary requirements to join colleges and universities. These types of interventions and programs are indeed greatly helpful to the less fortunate children and those which are in conflict with the law. These interventions strengthened my belief that issues pertaining to children are everyone’s business and if we all just try to step out of our predictable, laid out, roles and responsibilities, we can all contribute to change the plight of children in the positive.  

After all, as Nelson Mandela again said,  

“Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people.”

The better investment we make toward our children, the better future we have as a society.

Martha Guraro and Michelle BarclayMartha Guraro addressing AOC staff at the September meeting

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