Information about the changes and how they will affect Cherokee County organizations such as Department of Family and Children Services, Cherokee Court Appointed Special Advocates, law enforcement and the judicial system, just to name a few — was presented during the inaugural Child Abuse Prevention Luncheon Tuesday at the Northside Hospital-Cherokee Conference Center in Canton.
Featured guest speakers included Judge John B. Sumner, presiding judge of Cherokee County Juvenile Court and Ron Scroggy, director of the Department of Human Services for the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
John Blend, founder of Goshen Valley Boys Ranch and sponsor of the luncheon, told the crowd of more than 100 he wanted to play host to the event to bring together all community stakeholders that promote the safety, social and emotional well-being of Cherokee children and families.
“Our mission today is to demonstrate primarily to ourselves and to those watching the powerful assets that are arrayed here today in Cherokee County to deal with this battle against child abuse and neglect,” Blend said. “We have some team in this room.”
Sumner, who has served as Cherokee’s Juvenile Court judge since 2001, pointed out that many of the county’s leaders are lauded throughout the state for their work in child welfare, from Georgia’s 2012 CASA Volunteer of the Year Millie Bush to the county’s newest accolade: Sumner announced that both the Cherokee County Child Fatality Review Committee and the Child Abuse Protocol Committee were honored by the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate as the Prevention Committee of the Year.
“It is unique to have this much talent and this much of a community committed to this area,” Sumner said.
Sumner said the efforts of these dedicated volunteers and professionals will be essential in the coming year, as he presented information about the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2014.
“We’re going to have to decide as a community what we’re going to do when this day comes,” he told the audience.
Passed unanimously by the Georgia General Assembly this year, the about 240-page rewrite of the code brings juvenile justice laws up to date, many of which were first written in 1971, Sumner said.
“What has happened over the last 40 years is we have written code revision after code revision, section on top of section,” he said. “The result is, we’ve had a very difficult code… that doesn’t seem to work well.”
Some of the changes Sumner focused on included the changing of the role of the child in juvenile justice proceedings, reclassifying designations for children in the court system, fast-tracking dependency and changes in determining delinquency.
“One of the most significant changes will be we will be limited to secure placement (of juveniles) for 72 hours,” Sumner said. “The stick of incarceration is gone.”
Sumner said he and Judge Anthony Baker, Cherokee’s other Juvenile Court judge, don’t like to send children to jail.
“We have all of these other programs. We try to divert them,” Baker said. “But unfortunately, some of these children who are runaways, ungovernables or having problems at home are a danger to themselves… We have never favored using incarceration, but that was always our last-ditch effort. It is now gone.”
Beyond the initial 72-hour detainment period, Sumner said there is “no real threat” for these children.
However, under the new code, there are no identified state programs provided by the state as an alternative to incarceration and only $5 million in grants to be spread among only 18 counties that qualify for these program enhancements.
However, Sumner said the statute does allow for early intervention protocols, including many programs that the county already has in place such as family counseling, psychological testing and peer group resources. But the statute doesn’t totally define what those programs look like from county to county.
“It’s a call out to our community to decide how we are going to have community-based risk reduction,” he said.
Children also now have a right to be a party in their own cases and have a right to counsel.
“The new code empowers children more and makes them a party rather than a participant on the sidelines,” Sumner said.
Overall, Sumner said the changes mean more attorneys, more CASA workers and a more legalistic approach in the juvenile justice system.
He and Baker’s recommendations for the county included: supporting the Cherokee Board of Commissioners to secure funding for child safety initiatives; encouraging local agencies to contact their respective state offices for recommendations in implementing the new code; conducting interagency meetings to outline strategies and protocols and hosting local training in late fall and early winter to prepare for the onset of the changes.
“It’s going to take all of us,” Sumner said. “We need to come together as a community.”