Children’s Rights, a legal watchdog for children mistreated in foster care, is opening an Atlanta branch—the first outside of its New York headquarters—with the support of one of the city’s largest litigation defense firms, Hall Booth Smith.
Hall Booth will provide office space, staff assistance and pro bono lawyers to the legal nonprofit.
“We want to try and get our whole firm involved and be a big partner with them in the Southeast,” founding partner John Hall said.
“This project will strengthen our firm,” Hall added, by providing a “common vision and goal.”
Children’s Rights’ focus is impact litigation, and it does not represent individual children in abuse or neglect cases. Instead the group co-counsels with local firms for the class actions it takes on in each state, said senior staff attorney Christina Remlin, who is opening the Atlanta office.
“We are dedicated to using the law to hold the government accountable and defend child welfare when systems fail,” said Remlin, a former associate at Shearman & Sterling and Baker & McKenzie.
Remlin said she plans to hire an additional lawyer in Atlanta in the next couple of months and, if funding permits, a paralegal.
The group has filed class actions in at least 17 states against child welfare departments that fail to ensure the safety of children they place in foster care. Their cases include a landmark 2002 Georgia class action, Kenny A. v. Perdue, against the Division of Family and Children Services in Fulton and DeKalb counties with local co-counsel Bondurant Mixson & Elmore.
That case, decided by Senior Judge Marvin Shoob of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, established that children in DFACS custody who are being abused or neglected have the right to counsel. It also addressed systemic problems, such as too few caseworkers to oversee foster placements and children getting shuttled from placement to placement or sent to dangerous emergency shelters.
Remlin, who is working on the Kenny A. case, said Fulton and DeKalb counties are still under a federal consent decree, issued in 2005, over the child welfare agencies’ handling of foster children.
“They’ve made some significant improvements, but there is a long way to go,” Remlin said. The emergency shelters have been shut down, and children are being moved fewer times, she said, but there has been a spike in caseloads for Child Protective Services investigators and problems in investigating abuse and neglect allegations in a timely fashion.
Remlin, an Atlanta native, has been lead trial counsel at Children’s Rights for almost seven years, after starting her career at New York white-shoe firm Shearman & Sterling and then joining global giant Baker & McKenzie.
“I’m a Southerner. I grew up here in Atlanta, and it almost feels like a spiritual imperative to do the work here in this community,” she said.
“A lot of our work is in the South,” Remlin said, noting that the region has the highest child poverty rate in the nation, with 24 percent living below the poverty line. The South also has the most children, 137,000, in foster care, she said, with another 20,000 children in juvenile detention or supervision.
So when Hall Booth unexpectedly offered to house Children’s Rights and provide pro bono support two weeks ago, it opened up a whole new realm of possibility for the group, she said.
“They really were the answer to a prayer,” said trial lawyer Greg Hecht of Hecht Walker, who connected Remlin with Hall Booth.
Hecht said his interest in foster care is personal, since he and his wife adopted 4-year-old twin girls almost a decade ago. At that point, the girls had already been through seven foster placements. That turned both Hechts into child welfare advocates.
During six years in the state Legislature, Hecht sponsored several laws to protect children’s well-being. He went on to volunteer for Children’s Rights, where he’s on the national advisory council, and he has been spearheading an awareness and fundraising effort to get the Atlanta office started.
One of the people Hecht called on for help was his friend Hall at Hall Booth. Hall invited Hecht and Remlin to make a breakfast presentation to about 25 of the firm’s attorneys and support staff at the end of May.
Afterward, Hall and his partners Alex Booth, Rush Smith, Trey Reese and Chuck Clay told the child advocates that the firm wanted to partner with them.
“We are very agile in our decision-making,” Hall said, adding that Hall Booth had some extra space with a separate entrance on the 31st floor of its Atlanta headquarters at 191 Peachtree St. N.E.
“It was clear that they are doing great work,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to help kids?”
“It’s good for our folks,” Hall added. “We encourage them to do pro bono, and this provides them the ability to have it right there.”
Hall Booth, which now has about 210 lawyers in six Southeastern states, has offered Children’s Rights space in any of its 15 offices.
Children’s Rights uses pro bono lawyers both for active litigation and the extensive investigations it conducts when deciding whether to file a class action, Remlin said, as well as policy work.
When Children’s Rights was founded by the New York Civil Liberties Union more than two decades ago, the mission was filing class actions on behalf of children being mistreated in foster care.
The group has broadened its purview and started filing class actions for children in juvenile detention, such as one against the state of Iowa over placing children in restraint devices in isolation, instead of addressing their mental health needs.
Remlin has started two new projects: a policy project with Lambda Legal focused on rights for LGBTQ children, who disproportionately end up in foster care, juvenile detention or homeless, and another to represent unaccompanied immigrant children on Long Island in individual proceedings.
Children’s Rights is lead amicus in the ACLU’s federal suit challenging the practice of separating migrant parents and children at the U.S. border, which has survived a motion to dismiss from the Trump administration.
“When I go to bed at night, I see the faces of the children we have not helped,” Remlin said. “There is a lot more work for us to do across the South. This tremendous contribution from Hall Booth Smith is really going to make that possible.”