Terry Walsh (from left), Linda Klein, Terri Hendley, Billy Baucom and Jessica Pennington. Terry Walsh (from left), Linda Klein, Terri Hendley, Billy Baucom and Jessica Pennington. (Courtesy photo)

Helping truant kids stay in school can keep them out of prison later. That is the mission of the innovative Truancy Intervention Project, which honored some of its most committed lawyer-volunteers at an annual appreciation lunch on Tuesday.

The earlier the intervention, the better the chance of keeping a child in school and on a better path, said Terry Walsh, who founded the program in 1992 with Judge Glenda Hatchett.

Hatchett recalled the case that was the last straw for her as a newly appointed Fulton County Juvenile Court judge. A 15-year-old boy appeared before her pleading guilty to murder, she said.

“With a heavy heart, as I pulled back the layers of his record,” she recounted, the judge discovered he’d dropped out of school at 12 and ended up dealing drugs.

But the boy had made sure his younger brother and sister got to school every day, and both had perfect attendance records. It turned out the children’s mother and grandmother were both drug addicts and so the boy was selling drugs to support his family.

The boy told Hatchett he’d shot another drug dealer because “it was either him or me.”

No one had intervened, Hatchett said. “Nobody cared.”  

“We’ve got to get to these children before they get to me upstream, she told Walsh, then the president-elect of the Atlanta Bar Association and a partner at Alston & Bird.

Walsh responded by starting the innovative project, connecting volunteer lawyers with truant children referred by Fulton County courts or schools. The lawyers serve as advocates for their young clients in court and with school management—and often, he said, are the adult a child needs to make a difference in their life.

An Alarm Clock

At Tuesday’s lunch, TIP honored Adwoa Awotwi as the Glenda Hatchett Volunteer of the Year for her 15 years of work with the program, volunteering for cases from early intervention to serious truancy.

When one young client decided to join the National Guard Youth Challenge program for at-risk teens, Awotwi hosted her for a few weeks before its start date so she could avoid any trouble at home.

But a volunteer can make a difference with a much more limited time commitment.

Many children have complex issues, involving parents with addiction or mental illness—or their own behavioral problems. But for one of Mark Silver’s clients, it was as simple as an alarm clock.

Silver, another honoree who is an associate at Dentons, said he asked the youth what he needed to get to school every day. “An alarm clock,” was the reply. Silver bought him one and said the boy stopped missing school.

Silver added that he’s seen what can happen to kids who leave school. His wife, public defender Natasha Crawford, recently had a 19-year-old client convicted of murder and sentenced to two life sentences plus 33 years.

“He dropped out in 10th grade,” Silver said.

Dropout Pipeline

Now in its 26th year, TIP has served more than 10,500 children, and 86 percent of them do not return to juvenile court. What’s more, Walsh said, only one percent of the children referred for early intervention by schools ended up in court.

The program has been replicated nationally as well as in other Georgia counties.

What starts out as “playing hooky” can have serious consequences. A total of 75 percent of all crimes are committed by school dropouts—and about 95 percent of those in prison are dropouts, according to a report on TIP from the Georgia Bar Foundation’s executive director, Len Horton, published by the American Bar Association last fall.

“We are proud of TIP at the ABA. America’s youth is our most important asset,” said immediate past ABA president Linda Klein at the event. “And too many are at risk.”

“I do it because I can and we should,” said another honoree, Bill Fletcher, who is one of TIP’s longest-serving volunteers. He has been taking at least one case a year since 1995, even as a small practitioner at Gibson, Deal and Fletcher.

TIP honored community volunteer and lawyer Josh Harris for his tenacity taking on long-term cases, and Tony Greene of Alston & Bird, whose advocacy includes making sure clients and families are able to access counseling and transportation.

Working with kids through TIP can change lawyers’ lives as well. Robert Mack, who handled 10 cases for the group over his years as a solo practitioner, said his experience inspired him to run for judge. He was elected to Clayton County Superior Court two years ago.

Clayton County does not have an intervention program like TIP, Mack added, and he sees the need from the bench. “We get a lot of young kids who are gang members,” he said, explaining that they’re in superior court, not juvenile, because they’ve been charged with adult crimes.

The common theme, Mack said, is that they’re school dropouts.

New Recruits

Billy Baucom, a first-year associate at Troutman Sanders, just took his first case for TIP—and his first as a lawyer—representing a 15-year-old who’s skipped 37 days of school so far this year, and then got suspended as punishment. 

“To me, he appears to be acting like a teenager and falling into peer pressure,” said Baucom, who heard about TIP from other Troutman lawyers.

TIP recognized Troutman with the “Champion for Children Award” for its efforts, led by Terri Hendley and Kevin Coleman, which included hosting an informational session and a CLE training to attract new volunteers.

Baucom had considered becoming a teacher, he said, so TIP appealed to him as a way “to provide advice to young kids” as a lawyer.  

Last Thursday he made his first-ever court appearance on behalf of his new client—to ask for a continuance. The boy had actually made it to school that day, and Baucom didn’t want to take him out to appear in court. “It’s a bit of a dilemma,” he said.

The Fulton Juvenile Court judge granted the request.

TIP works with between 400 and 450 children each year, through the efforts of its eight staff and about 250 volunteers.

But there are far more at-risk children than they can serve, said the program’s executive director, Jessica Pennington.

“Ask. Just ask [your firm] and they will say yes,” was Silver’s advice to new volunteers, adding that Atlanta firms are happy to have their lawyers involved in TIP.

To volunteer with TIP, contact Adrian Wright, its volunteer and training manager, at awright@truancyproject.org.