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Atlanta lawyer Don C. Keenan has opened a child advocacy law center that he says will succeed where the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate has “failed.” While there have been no reported “failures” of the state office, Keenan doesn’t think it can advocate effectively if it can’t sue. The state office, established in 2000, has investigative powers, but the General Assembly didn’t give it the power to file suits. Instead, it investigates cases and can refer them to law enforcement authorities. To a plaintiffs’ lawyer like Keenan, that’s a fatal flaw. In September, Keenan’s private Keenan’s Kids Foundation launched and funded the nonprofit Keenan’s Kids Law Center. The center will advocate Keenan’s way: It will bring a class action suit against the state on behalf of children in foster care. Jane G. Okrasinski, a public interest attorney and former journalist, will head the center, an organization separate from The Keenan Law Firm, which consists of Keenan and five associates. The firm specializes in personal injury claims and often represents children. Keenan has criticized the state’s child advocate office since the General Assembly created the office, maintaining that the office needs the power to sue in order to be effective. He supported former state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, to head the office. Oliver, an attorney, was an advocate for child welfare issues in the General Assembly and now coordinates Emory University School of Law’s Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic. The Emory program provides research and training for lawyers and policymakers involved in child protection. If Gov. Roy E. Barnes named Oliver child advocate, Keenan said at the time that he would withdraw as attorney of record in a suit he filed against the state in the death of 5-year-old Terrell M. Peterson. He also volunteered to drop a request to a Fulton state court, made in early 2000, to have the Georgia Department of Family and Child Services placed in receivership. Instead, Barnes appointed veteran Bibb County, Ga., prosecutor DeAlvah H. Simms to head the center, which is based in Macon, Ga. Simms has spent most of her 10-year career as a prosecutor on cases that involve crimes against children. Keenan called her the wrong person for the job and referred to her as “Casper the invisible ghost” after she was appointed. Keenan’s criticism of the state office hasn’t abated. “No matter who the child advocate was, they would have been a toothless tiger,” he says. “I said it publicly [before] and I’ll say it again. The [state's] office is a fa�ade.” His dissatisfaction with the selection of Simms isn’t personal, he says, but “it is personal when it comes to the governor. … He has without question failed the children of Georgia.” The governor’s office referred calls to Simms. In the early 1980s, Keenan sued the Georgia Department of Human Resources’ Division of Family and Children Services after 3-year-old Kathy Jo Taylor was beaten into a coma while in foster care. She died 17 years later. The case, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, established that children in foster care do have the right to constitutional due process. The case came back to the trial court, which issued a consent decree requiring the state to make changes in the foster care system. Taylor v. Ledbetter, No. C84233-A (N.D. Ga. Jan. 3, 1984). In 1999 and 2000, Keenan filed suit in state and federal courts against the state on behalf of Terrell Peterson. The Atlanta boy died in 1998 after eight reports to the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services that he and his siblings were abused and neglected. According to the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, Peterson probably died from a blow to the head. The state case is in discovery. Peterson v. State, No. cv-15938 (Fult. Super. filed Nov. 10, 1999). The federal case is on appeal. Peterson v. State, No. 1:00cv-0071 (N.D. Ga. Oct. 18, 2000). The Peterson case demonstrated Georgia’s failure to enforce the Kathy Jo Taylor consent decree, Keenan says. Since Terrell Peterson’s death, Keenan says, he’s researched the reform of foster care in nine other states. In all cases, he found that class action litigation was the most effective method for bringing about change. Simms confirms that her office doesn’t have the authority to file suits. According to statutes relevant to the office, O.C.G.A. � 15-11-170 to � 15-11-177, Simms can conduct investigations and refer complaints to law enforcement agencies. Since some complaints that are filed with the office already involve law enforcement, Simms says, it’s hard to quantify how many cases are referred to the authorities. But the state child advocate’s office does work closely with law enforcement on many matters, Simms says. Simms says that her office has investigated more than 600 complaints relating to child protective services in Georgia. She adds that it would require a constitutional amendment to allow her office to initiate suits. “There are a lot of people who feel that that step should have been taken,” she says. “But it wasn’t. … I think the governor has shown a great commitment to providing the best resources Georgia can afford to give children. But the power to sue or to do a class action is going to have to come from an outside force.” Her office will receive state funds of $300,000 in 2001 and $392,000 plus federal grants of $260,000 in 2002, Simms says. She plans to request a $1.2 million budget for 2003 and wants to open an Atlanta office. Prior to taking the child advocate position, Simms was a Bibb County assistant district attorney for 10 years and specialized in crimes involving child victims. Before that she was an associate with the Atlanta office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue. She earns more than $94,000 at the State Office of the Child Advocate. Okrasinski, who will be paid $75,000 a year to direct Keenan’s center, comes from the Georgia Legal Services Program Inc., where she’s worked since January. Before that she lived on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and represented Navajo and Hopi clients for a legal service organization. From 1992 to 1998, Okrasinski was a reporter and producer for Court TV and for five years before that she was a reporter for the Daily Report. She also has been a monitor for Texas Prison litigation in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas and a securities and complex litigation associate at the now-defunct Peterson & Young in Atlanta. She is a 1980 graduate of Emory University School of Law. Through his foundation, Keenan’s funded the advocacy center with $300,010 for its first year. He notes that his funding tops the state’s 2001 funding of the child advocate office by $10. He expects to spend about $50,000 to $150,000 more within the next two years of the center’s operation. Okrasinski’s main task is to begin work on the class action suit against the state on behalf of Georgia’s foster children. She’ll seek injunctive remedies to overhaul the state’s foster system. She expects to file suit early next year.

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