One of Georgia's foremost advocates for children has returned from a nearly three-year mission in Guatemala strengthened in his resolve to work on behalf of children.
"I think both my experience here and my experience in Guatemala have made me realize this is one area of the law in which you really can use a legal skill to truly help people who are in terrible, terrible straits," says Tom Rawlings.
A former head of the oversight agency for Georgia's child protection system, Rawlings had moved his wife and three school-age children to Guatemala City to become the national field office director for International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian human rights organization. He returned to Sandersville, Ga., about three weeks ago and is setting up shop to practice law in the state again.
Armed with middling Spanish skills, Rawlings in early 2010 had set off to direct an office that was part social services agency, part prosecutor's office, focusing on support of child sexual-abuse victims. The office, which had about 11 people when he joined and grew to 30, has dual goals of representing individual victims and changing the system for dealing with crimes against children.
Now 45, Rawlings explains that he had traveled extensively in Latin America for many years and wanted to find a way to put his legal skills to work there. He learned of the IJM's work on issues such as sex trafficking and bonded labor. The group tackles situations in which good laws are in place, but the legal system is broken in some ways, he says.
After nearly seven years as a juvenile court judge for the Middle Judicial Circuit, a failed run for the state Court of Appeals and a 2 1/2-year stint as the state's child advocate, Rawlings accepted the post in Guatemala.
He was to tackle what he calls "garden variety" child sex abuse -- exacerbated by a severe underreporting problem. According to Rawlings, about 4,000 criminal complaints are filed by victims per year, with 200 going to trial.
In the wake of years of civil war and government violence, citizens tend not to trust police and other government officials. When victims do come forward, authorities' lack of resources reinforce the notion that reporting abuse isn't worth the trouble. There's little social safety net to catch a woman thrown out of the house after she turns her husband or boyfriend in for abusing her child, Rawlings explains.
Rawlings' charge at IJM was to lead a mission outpost, established in 2005, that works with local prosecutors and child welfare authorities. His team -- local lawyers, paralegals, investigators and social workers -- would provide therapy for victims' families, accompany families to court, work alongside prosecutors and even help police snag perpetrators.
"The idea of going in and actually representing clients in court, and, of course, treating their social needs as well ... [to] not only to assist the individual but really to start improving the justice system and show that something works, that you can actually achieve justice in these cases where only 2 percent of cases are ever prosecuted successfully, just seemed like a really interesting challenge," says Rawlings. "And it's pretty audacious."
He says he was impressed with the courage and toughness of his staff, particularly in light of the injustices they had experienced in their own lives.
"Everybody on my team has been robbed, at least," he says, "I had one who had a kidnapping in the family."
He says one of his lawyers had suffered the death of her father, a professor, who was gunned down outside her home in 1981 when the government was killing suspected leftists.
As an example of his staff's courage, Rawlings recalls a case that started after the office received a credible report that children were being abused at their home.
His head social worker made plans to meet police and child welfare workers in a dangerous neighborhood, but she was the only one who showed up. Nonetheless, the petite woman faced down a crowd of angry relatives and plucked the children out anyway, says Rawlings.
He says he had to trust his staff, especially at first when, despite an immersion course, his Spanish was shaky. In the beginning, he often found himself simply saying "muy bien" when his staff, who insisted he communicate in Spanish, approached him with a question.
He says IJM had found that, although the system had major problems, there were well-meaning folks among the official government players.
"What we were doing in Guatemala was, more than anything else, making sure that those people who had enough courage to report a case of sexual abuse got the support that they needed to be protected to get out of a bad situation, to get the therapy they needed and, really, to prosecute the offender," Rawlings says.
Despite high crime rates in the country, Rawlings says he wasn't ever afraid. He recalls considering a visit to the neighborhood Pizza Hut one year for his birthday. Luckily he opted for sushi, instead: When he returned home from dinner, he learned that security guards had been killed in a shooting at the pizza place while he was out.
But Rawlings says the country nonetheless had much to offer his family. There's great fishing and swimming, he says, and his house had a view of a volcano. Temperatures were mild; neither heat nor air conditioning was needed. "It's a beautiful country."
Rawlings also was able to see the fruits of his work: Children who had been traumatized would happily run around his office. Rawlings says his office helped secure more than 80 convictions and served hundreds of families during his time there. He says in a given year the office's convictions might represent up to one-half of all of the child sex convictions in Guatemala City.
Back in Sandersville, he is opening a law practice with retired Superior Court Judge Walter McMillan Jr. Rawlings says he expects the two will be doing some small-town practice, but he also wants to work on children's issues. He hopes to represent parties in deprivation cases and represent children charged with crimes and juvenile offenses.
He also wants to develop a way to offer some legal help to families that are the subject of investigation by child welfare officials but haven't been called to court. He's interested in ongoing efforts to rewrite the state's juvenile code. He hopes to use his Spanish some, too.
He says he'll be working on the Georgia courts' so-called "cold-case project," designed to move children who have drifted in the foster system into permanent placements. He wants people to know he's game for speaking engagements about supporting legal assistance efforts in other countries.
"Our work in general was a drop in the bucket, because you're talking about a small team and so many problems," says Rawlings. "But by working with these individuals and by assisting these victims, we actually not only brought some restoration and justice for them, but we also showed those who were working in the system that there was an organization to support them."