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There should be plenty of work for lawyers now that a federal judge has ruled that thousands of children in state foster care in Georgia are entitled to an attorney. But who will represent the children and how much the government can pay remain open questions — ones that may lead to some legislative d�j� vu. Participants in the foster care case say it brings up similar issues as the General Assembly’s recent debate and ultimate approval of funding for a statewide system of lawyers for indigent criminal defendants. The new wave of legal work stems from Kenny A. v. Perdue, No. 1:02CV1686, a federal class action that claimed that children in state custody as a result of abuse or neglect were not getting effective legal representation, health care and other benefits. Lawyers are watching the ripple effect of Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin H. Shoob’s February order declaring that the 3,000 children in foster care in Fulton and DeKalb counties were entitled to lawyers. “Foster children have both a statutory and a constitutional right to counsel in all deprivation proceedings,” Shoob wrote in his Feb. 8 order. “It is well settled that children are afforded protection under the Due Process Clauses of both the United States and Georgia constitutions and are entitled to constitutionally adequate procedural due process when their liberty or property rights are at stake,” Shoob wrote. Although Shoob’s order regarding legal counsel is directed toward Fulton and DeKalb, it seems to indicate that other Georgia counties also must provide adequate legal representation for abused and neglected children. Fulton and DeKalb are the only counties in Georgia that have full-time staff attorneys assigned to represent neglected children. But the plaintiffs lawyers said that the county attorneys, who are referred to as “juvenile court child advocates,” are overworked, and at least some of the kids’ legal work is expected to go to other attorneys in a settlement that is being hatched. The legal work with Fulton and DeKalb foster children isn’t expected to be lucrative, but there will be a lot of it, said Jeffrey O. Bramlett, co-lead counsel on the Kenny A. case. “This is not financially attractive to private practitioners, but there are some private practitioners who do it, God bless them,” said Bramlett, who worked on the case with Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore associate Corey F. Hirokawa. Fulton County Attorney Overtis H. Brantley and acting DeKalb County Attorney Viviane H. Ernstes declined to comment on the settlement negotiations. “We’re still in talks,” Brantley said. Fulton and DeKalb spent an estimated $3.5 million in its three-year legal fight, according to New York-based Children’s Rights, which served as co-lead plaintiffs counsel on the Kenny A. case. Fulton employs five full-time, in-house lawyers as child advocates, plus a managing attorney, said Lila Newberry Bradley, director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s One Child, One Lawyer program. DeKalb has four staff child advocates with a managing attorney. How Fulton and DeKalb will comply with Shoob’s ruling — either by hiring new staff attorneys or farming out the work to outside firms — remains to be seen, Bramlett said. “In the long run I think it would be more cost effective for the counties to hire new in-house attorneys,” he said. “It’s their choice.” LEGISLATION ON THE WAY? In some ways, Shoob’s ruling prompts a debate that will resemble the decades-long effort to have counties supply attorneys for indigent criminal defendants, Bramlett said. Legislation could require permanent funding for the juvenile court child advocate program, such as the $50 application fee levied on criminal defendants seeking a free lawyer because they are too poor to hire their own. “The Legislature, after 40 years of delay, finally said they’d raise money to pay for indigent defense,” Bramlett said, adding he hopes lawmakers will move faster to ensure legal representation for foster children. State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she would consider introducing legislation that would require the state to provide funding for counties to hire full-time staff attorneys charged with representing abused and neglected children. But she said she thinks the matter will be addressed adequately in the pending settlement between the counties and the plaintiffs. “I’m happy with Judge Shoob’s order, and I’m anticipating for settlement of the county defendants on the issue of representation,” she said. An estimate of the costs for the state to provide adequate legal counsel for abused and neglected children has not been determined, Oliver said. Although Shoob’s ruling applies only to Fulton and DeKalb, Oliver said she expects all of Georgia’s 159 counties to comply with the ruling. Oliver, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee before the Republican takeover last year, has introduced previous legislation related to legal counsel for children, including support of a new charge of felony-level child endangerment. AN OVERWHELMING NEED Despite Shoob’s order and the prospect of a legislative solution, the number of children who need an attorney is overwhelming, said the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Bradley. That is why she is relying on volunteer attorneys to help. “The numbers are such that a program like ours can’t come anywhere close to resolving the situation, but we are here to help and support the child advocates,” Bradley said. Bradley said she hopes One Child, One Lawyer will have trained 100 Atlanta Bar Association attorneys to act as child advocates by May. The next training session hosted by Bradley, which lasts a full day, is scheduled for Sept. 23. “These cases are so far removed from law school education and the day-to-day practice of most attorneys that we need to provide a lot of consultation and oversight beyond the typical pro bono project,” Bradley said. Efforts have been under way for several years to recruit and train lawyers to volunteer to represent abused and neglected children. The Georgia Supreme Court’s Child Placement Project was created in 1995 to evaluate civil child-abuse cases. The One Child, One Lawyer project is an offshoot of the state Supreme Court’s efforts. The Kenny A. suit goes beyond legal representation in Fulton and DeKalb. Attorneys for the children and the state reached a settlement on July 5 that calls for the state to hire new caseworkers and improve foster children’s access to health care. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 21 before Shoob to determine the fairness of the settlement.

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