Juanita Stedman (Photo: John Disney/ALMj) Juanita Stedman, Together Georgia Provider Alliance Inc. (Photo: John Disney/ALMj)

Juanita Stedman came to the law relatively late in her career, but she’s made the most of her time at the bar and on the bench. Stedman was a teacher, earning a master’s degree in special education in 1981 before attending night law school, graduating in 1988. From there, she clerked for a judge, served as administrative law judge and opened a private practice. In 2000, she became a Cobb County Juvenile Court judge, where she made her impact by creating the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court and the Family Dependency Court.

Stedman made a shortlist for a superior judge seat and lost in a runoff in another bid for higher office. She retired in 2016 and last year became executive director of Together Georgia Provider Alliance Inc., which is involved in child welfare policy. Last year, she appeared in an episode of A&E’s “Intervention” program, which addresses addiction situations.

You were a teacher before going to law school. How did that experience inform your work on the juvenile courts?

My training as a special education teacher was very beneficial to me as a juvenile court judge.

There are many times a judge interacts with the school system, as both serve the children in a community, especially those with disabilities. As a former teacher, I knew to ask about the mental health and/or disabilities of the child before me and to make sure those were taken into consideration.

Further, my experience enabled me to educate and guide the juvenile court staff to do the same.

What drew you to law school and practicing law?

My husband, Hugh Stedman, who was general counsel for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, influenced and encouraged me the most to become an attorney. I was also an associate professor at Georgia State University. Hugh’s belief in me and GSU having evening law school classes allowed me to go to law school while I continued being an educator. Further, I was always interested in the laws which directly impacted families and children. Hugh and GSU law school pushed me to pursue that interest and enabled me to have this amazing legal career in child welfare.

How did you come to create the Cobb County Juvenile Drug Treatment Court and the Family Dependency Court?

Prior to my appointment to the Cobb Juvenile Court bench, I had represented both children and parents in juvenile court. It soon became apparent to me that there was a common thread in most cases—substance abuse. Also it became clear that there were inadequate services to address the substance abuse.

As I learned about both juvenile drug courts and family drug courts, I saw a model that not only held everyone accountable but also treated the entire family. I knew then and continue to believe that drug courts truly stop the cycle of dependency caused by substance abuse. This has never been more important than it is today as Georgia faces the horrific opioid epidemic.

How should society draw the line between offenders who can be helped by a drug court and those who should serve time in prison?

The state of Georgia has been very fortunate to have had Gov. Nathan Deal’s leadership and his commitment to child welfare and criminal justice reform for eight years. Gov. Deal brought the judiciary and the Department of Corrections together to discuss justice reform. I was fortunate to be part of those discussions, where everyone acknowledged that many in Georgia’s prisons were there as a result of drug charges and/or drug addiction. Yet, the prisons were not equipped to address those issues. Thus most were leaving prison still using drugs, which meant they would return to prison.

Drug courts have evidence-based assessments, which will determine if the offender will be amenable to drug court. If accepted into a drug court by a team which includes the prosecutor, the judge and others, there are very stringent requirements, including treatment for 18 to 24 months. Those must be followed, or the offender goes to jail. However, those who do graduate are drug-free and are parents, employees or business owners and are productive citizens. They have changed their lives and will also help others change theirs.

What is the biggest challenge facing creation of better child and family welfare policy in the state?

The biggest challenge is that most of us lack an understanding that as to most of the issues that bring a family into the child welfare system are issues that “there by the grace of God go me and my family.” Substance abuse, poverty, domestic abuse, mental health, disabilities, etc., are not someone’s fault. Instead, they are issues which individually and as a state we have a responsibility to address. This takes more than government. It also takes our faith communities, our schools and volunteers all working together. We must move past child welfare being just a political problem and recognize it as a problem for each citizen. Together, we can and must be a community of hope for families who have otherwise been hopeless.