Every child deserves a safe, permanent home. Unfortunately, an estimated 9,000 children in Georgia are removed annually from their family homes because of abuse and neglect and are placed in foster homes on a temporary basis, separating them from their families and requiring them to adjust to new surroundings, friends and circumstances.
The Division of Family and Children Services, the state agency responsible for protecting the welfare of children, and the state’s juvenile courts ultimately try to reunite children with their families when issues that caused placement of the child in foster care are resolved. Foster care is not meant to be permanent but, rather, to temporarily provide children a home while the agency works with children and their families to eliminate or minimize issues detrimental to the children’s welfare. Foster parents — volunteers who provide care for children placed in the custody of DFCS — assume responsibility for parenting children placed with them and work as part of a team to assure that children’s physical, emotional, medical and psychological needs are met.
The state’s juvenile courts are responsible for deciding issues affecting children from the time they are born until they reach the age of 17, including cases involving dependency, neglect, abuse and other circumstances that imperil the welfare of a child. Because of the number of cases requiring foster care, juvenile-court judges throughout the state found it impossible to sit down with all interested parties and review case plans provided by DFCS to enable judges to make informed decisions. So the Georgia General Assembly in 2013 enacted legislation formalizing creation of “judicial citizens review panels” to assist judges.
Liberty County’s first judicial citizen review panel was created in 2001, when Juvenile Court Judge Linnie L. Darden III saw a need. Now, the review panel consists of a cross-section of volunteers from the community appointed by Judge Darden.
The panel works closely with DFCS, natural parents, legal guardians and children to ensure compliance with court-ordered case plans and to make recommendations to the court for any modifications. The panel is required by law to meet with affected children and parents, their attorneys, DFCS, guardians ad litem (persons the court appoints to represent the best interests of a child in court proceedings), court-appointed special advocates and service providers within 120 days after an initial periodic review hearing is conducted by the judge, and every six months thereafter until the child is permanently placed. A case plan must be developed within 30 days following removal of the child from the family home and upon each subsequent review by the court of the dispositional order. Case plans must only include steps necessary for complying with the court’s order and measures required of all parties to resolve problems that led to removal of the child from the home.
Panel members assess everything being done by all parties and agencies to determine whether there is a need for continued placement in foster care, whether the court-ordered plan is still the best option, whether DFCS is making reasonable efforts to reunite the family, which services are working, whether visitation is taking place, whether the placement if best for the child’s needs, whether new services are needed and to assess the timeframe for achieving all goals and closing the case. If reunification of the family is impossible, the panel may recommend another form of permanency, such as adoption, placement with a fit and willing relative or another planned arrangement.
The panel reviews cases assigned to it and makes recommendations to the judge. The judge may accept or reject the panel’s findings and recommendations. Parties to the case (i.e., the child, parent, guardian or DFCS) have a legal right to request a hearing before the judge if they disagree with the panel’s findings.
Vickie Sprouse is the coordinator of Liberty County’s judicial citizen-review panels. Her duties include assisting the juvenile court with ensuring that DFCS provides documentation in a timely manner so parties can be notified of case reviews, maintaining all review-panel case files, corresponding with parties unable to attend review hearings and recruiting and facilitating training for panel volunteers.
Sprouse is proud of the local program and its volunteers.
“We are fortunate to have a good cross-section of volunteers from our community. They are all very committed and have worked extremely hard to make our judicial citizen-review panel system a successful and an integral part of juvenile-
court proceedings,” she noted.
The panel currently has 27 volunteers.
The extraordinary effort of Ms. Sprouse and the judicial citizen-review volunteers often generally goes without attention or note, but their altruism and devotion to the review process has had a profound and lasting effect on the lives of thousands of children in Liberty County since the program was instituted.
“Sixty-five Georgia counties in the state now utilize citizen-review panels. I believe the Liberty County citizen-review panel is one of the best. Vickie Sprouse is the finest coordinator in our state. I am proud of her and all panel members’ service,” Judge Darden noted.
Children who do not have a stable and loving home are much more likely to develop psychological problems when they are teenagers or adults. Abused and neglected children are also more likely to eventually participate in criminal behavior. The costs for the children and society are immeasurable.
Kudos to Judge Darden for identifying the need for the program, spearheading efforts that led to its creation and providing the leadership necessary to persuade volunteers to dedicate the time and energy required to make the program as successful as it is.
Anyone interested in serving as a volunteer on the judicial citizen review panel should contact Ms. Cooke at 912-877-8500.
Wilkes is the Liberty County clerk of superior court and administrator for the county’s state, juvenile and magistrate courts. For more information, go to www.libertyco.com/info/BWilkes.html.