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.