Six months ago, outside of public view, children in state custody and their families lost the group of advocates who had stood up to ensure they were treated fairly.
When Janet Weinberger tendered her resignation as the coordinator of the Richmond County judicial citizen review panels, no more reviews were held and volunteers said they received not so much as a thank you or goodbye.
About the same time, a local task force created by Superior Court Judge Duncan Wheale in 2001 to serve as a public watchdog for children in state custody also met its demise.
"I've tried to stick up for DFCS as much as possible," said Ms. Weinberger, who had worked for the Department of Family and Children Services for eight years before she agreed to create the civil review panels for Richmond County 11 years ago. "(But) I was doing everybody's job and my own and it still wasn't getting done. We cannot make DFCS do its job or make the judges do their job."
She resigned Aug. 15, thinking that if she weren't involved, things might improve with another leader for the citizen review panels, Ms. Weinberger said. Six months later, nothing has changed, she and others said.
Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Herbert Kernaghan Jr. said training will be held next week for Ms. Weinberger's replacement and volunteers.
However, the state expert who does the training said that Richmond County failed to find enough volunteers in November and the training was canceled and that it will be canceled next week if the same thing happens.
The panels are an outgrowth of federal and state law, explained Robert Bassett, of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges. The horror stories of children lost in state custody in the 1980s led to federal and state laws that mandate periodic judicial review of every child's case to ensure that deadlines are met and the child's treatment is monitored.
In Georgia, Mr. Bassett said, there are only two ways to do that: by citizen review panels or by juvenile judge review.
In an Aug. 20 letter to Judge Wheale, Mr. Bassett wrote, "As stated previously, the problems in Richmond County are from top to bottom."
In fact, Mr. Bassett told the local task force members and The Augusta Chronicle, Richmond County is the worst county in Georgia as far as compliance is concerned.
Judge Kernaghan and Myra Josey, the director of DFCS social services, emphatically reject that contention.
"I'm not aware that there are any (cases out of compliance)," Judge Kernaghan said. The citizen panels are not required by law, he pointed out, and he can do the reviews himself and has been doing so.
"We're knocking them out. It's about to kill us but we're doing it," he said.
Mr. Bassett is sticking with his assessment of Richmond County, however, and child advocates, parents and foster families agree.
"If you love your child and he gets into the state system in Richmond County, he goes into a black hole. It's a nightmare," said John Tucker, a child advocate who volunteered on the citizen review panels.
HE KNOWS THAT DFCS caseworkers are overloaded - carrying twice the number of cases as the national average - but a line has to be drawn somewhere to ensure children are getting at least minimum services, Mr. Tucker said.
While he served on the citizen review panels, Mr. Tucker said, caseworkers did not meet deadlines and often came to the reviews unprepared. When panel members, all unpaid volunteers, complained, they faced hostility from DFCS and indifference from the judge, Mr. Tucker said.
"DFCS can pretty much sign its own report card. They just stay in contempt of court. They know there's no teeth in that. They don't care," Mr. Tucker said.
That's not true, said Ms. Josey, the DFCS official.
"The only problem we ever had from the panels was there just weren't enough of them," she said.
With more than 400 children - 428 on Monday - in state custody, Ms. Josey said, she couldn't say for certain that every case is in compliance, but she believes they are. She said she asked Mr. Bassett to provide names of cases out of compliance but never received any.
The problems that DFCS caseworkers have are a result of carrying such a high caseload, said Carolyn Beard, the director of the Richmond County DFCS office. Whenever they learned of complaints, they took action immediately, she said.
Wanda Clark, of Augusta, and her family became involved in the state system almost a year ago when she called police after her 15-year-old daughter broke her nose during an argument. Because the teenager was holding her 3-month-old baby at the time, DFCS was called in.
"It's been 11 months of pure hell," Ms. Clark said. Her daughter and grandson have been in at least five foster homes since May, according to their Court Appointed Special Advocates social worker.
Since Dec. 19, Ms. Clark and her daughter have been allowed to see the baby once a week, and every time, they have found the child filthy and often in the same clothes he was wearing the week before, Ms. Clark said.
AT A JAN. 30 COURT hearing, Ms. Clark said that Judge Kernaghan agreed to let her daughter live with her aunt and that he told the DFCS caseworker to do what was necessary to get the baby transferred to the same home "as soon as possible."
On Tuesday, Ms. Clark said nothing has been done since then. She doesn't even know why the baby was taken, nor has she seen a case plan - required by Georgia law within 30 days of the state's taking custody of a child - for the baby, she said.
Thelma Brown has seen a lot of changes for children in state custody in the 20 years she has been a foster parent. The system was good, she said, until the demise of the citizen review panels.
"I would really like to have them back. When we go before the judge we don't get to talk," Ms. Brown said. "(And) a lot of time we aren't even invited to the judicial reviews."
According to Mr. Bassett, all interested parties must be given notice and the opportunity to attend the reviews.
Ms. Brown has had two foster children since April, one since March and another since June, and the DFCS caseworkers haven't prepared a case plan for any of them, she said. Two of the children haven't even had a judicial review - which must be done every six months under state law.
The citizen panel also had an advantage because volunteers saw the same children over time and got to know them, said Julia Bloodworth, who founded Augusta Child Advocates.
"I think the panel is definitely a plus in the whole system. I have sat through many panels and they help DFCS stay on their toes, there's no doubt about it. (But now), our DFCS answers - as far as I can tell - practically to no one," Ms. Bloodworth said.
The people who care about these children need to work together, "and it's not happening now in Richmond County," she said.
Judge Wheale agrees.
"The safety net for abused and neglected children will also depend on volunteers," he said. "When everyone works in partnership to protect the children, including the courts, the volunteers and DFCS, the system works. When they don't ... the entire process fails, and the big losers are the children."
FROM MARCH 2001 through September 2002, the local task force Judge Wheale created tried to be the bridge between volunteers, the court and DFCS. Dozens of volunteers offered to assist overworked DFCS caseworkers with paperwork and with children. The task force also got cellular telephones and cameras for caseworkers.
Arlene Hally, who served on the citizen review panel for 11 years, volunteered to help DFCS through the task force. She estimated that 99 percent of what she did for DFCS was filing work and she was happy to do it, but the reception she got from some workers led her to quit.
"After a while I got sick and tired of banging my head against the wall," she said. "I realize they have a tough job, but I resented going over there and finding them not prepared."
"They don't want us around because we keep prodding them," but children should not be in foster care for two or three years because caseworkers can't get their job done, and adoptions can take just as long if not longer, said Ms. Hally, who has adopted two children herself.
Ms. Josey and Ms. Beard said they no longer have any volunteers because, while well intentioned, they were overwhelmed by the massive amount of paperwork required for each child in state custody. No one told them that volunteers were disrespected, they said.
Anyone who would like to volunteer to help the Richmond County Department of Family and Children Services or become a foster parent is asked to call 721-3718. Anyone who needs help with a child in state custody and is not getting assistance from local officials can call the Office of the Child Advocate toll-free, (800) 254-2064, or visit the Web site at state.ga.us/gachildadvocate.
"If you love your child and he gets into the state system in Richmond County, he goes into a black hole. It's a nightmare." - John Tucker, child advocate who volunteered on citizen review panels
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.