June 23, 2003

Emory helps shape important Georgia laws

By Michael Terrazas

Two bills that will bring important social reforms to Georgia cleared the General Assembly this spring, and both had Emory fingerprints all over them.

One of those bills, SB 102 —better known as the Indigent Defense Act of 2003—received quite a bit of press attention as a landmark overhaul of the state’s indigent defense system. Following closely the recommendations of a Georgia Supreme Court commission, the bill will establish public defender offices in the state’s 49 judicial circuits, thus providing state funding for legal defense of those unable to pay for their own lawyers (previously counties were responsible for funding indigent defense).

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Chuck Clay (R–Marietta), who sat on the Supreme Court commission along with several Emory alumni and interim Provost Woody Hunter, who called the bill’s passage “personally rewarding.”

“I have a great sense of satisfaction for having had the opportunity to participate in a process that resulted in the creation of a system that will make manifest the promise of justice and fairness in the Constitution,” Hunter said, adding that the final version of the bill differed little from what the commission recommended.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, who represents Decatur in the Georgia House, called the indigent defense bill “probably the most important thing we did in Georgia in 2003.” Oliver sits on the house judiciary committee that reviewed the bill and said she was surprised that it received such broad, bipartisan support (the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and only 14 members voted against the House version).

“It’s very gratifying to see such significant progress on a such a wide-ranging issue,” Oliver said.

But the Decatur assemblywoman was much more intimately involved with the creation and passage of SB 236, which makes important changes to the state’s foster care system and “expands the child protection team,” Oliver said.

In fact, she shares the credit with her colleagues at Emory’s Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic, through which Oliver serves as a visiting professor in the law school. The Barton Clinic was one of many advocacy groups consulted by lawmakers and Gov. Sonny Perdue in the crafting of SB 236.

“It all has to do with how children are moved through the foster care system,” said Melissa Dorris, postgraduate fellow at the Barton Clinic. “Juvenile courts are moving away from strict rules of confidentiality to a more open process, where more people can be involved in the child protection team.”

Basically the bill accomplishes three main goals:

• It specifically mandates that foster parents be informed and given the opportunity to participate in court proceedings involving their juvenile charges.

• It expands the definitions of permanent placement homes, allowing the system to take a broader view of where such placements may be made.

• It establishes a time frame (90 days) in which the state should endeavor to locate a relative placement. After that time, the state can consider other permanent placement options.

None of these directives is new to SB 236, but what the bill does is legislate the consistent application of each measure across the state. For example, Oliver said sometimes the Division of Family and Children Services could take more than a year trying to locate adoptive parents within a child’s birth family instead of considering other alternatives.

Many of the bill’s provisions were contained in a House bill Oliver sponsored that became bogged down in a political soup. But SB 236 had the powerful backing of the governor’s office, and Oliver saw the opportunity to hitch her goals for improving foster care to a bill with a much better chance of passing.

“All the credit goes to Gov. Perdue for being committed to this issue and willing to seek out and listen to the opinions and expertise of those groups most intimately involved with the foster care system,” Oliver said. “He demonstrated a consistent focus on this that is very much to be commended.”

At the Barton Clinic, much of the credit goes to the team of law students who tracked
SB 236 through last semester. As they do every spring, the clinic’s student staff tracked literally dozens of bills through the legislature, learning each step of the way how the wheels of government and advocacy turn.

“It’s the model of how we work,” said Andy Barclay, founder and chair of the Barton Clinic’s board, who volunteers full time as a technical consultant for the clinic.