Callie Thornton
Updated: Saturday, 17 Apr 2010, 1:10 PM EDT
Published : Saturday, 17 Apr 2010, 1:05 PM EDT
Luke Smith
Posted by: Kate McGowan

DEPEW, N.Y. (WIVB) - The first person sentenced in Western New York under the new Leandra's Law will not serve time behind bars.
The law is designed to be a tough felony punishment for driving drunk with children in the car.
But on Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Penny Wolfgang sentenced Jolie Norse to five years probation.
She had consumed more than twice the legal limit when she was stopped at the Depew exit of the thruway on Christmas night.
Her three adopted children and one foster child were in the car with her.  More on story...
Callie Thornton

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Taking Liberties - Former Social Worker Report

She thought she was hired to protect children. But instead, a city child abuse investigator discovered that betraying her clients was part of her job description. Tales from a year inside the Administration for Children's Services. 

By Akka Gordon
Source: City Limits MAGAZINE City Limits publishes City Limits Magazine, a bi-monthly investigative journalism publication on city-wide civic issues, and, a long-standing destination for original news, resources, community interaction, and jobs and marketplace opportunities.

Emergency Children's Services is an inconspicuous, dingy building at the southern edge of Soho. About 30 to 40 kids come here each night, after they are taken away from their parents and while they're waiting for a foster home to take them in. When they get here, they cry, fight or sit silently on a stained couch, eyes glazed over. As an investigator for the New York City Administration for Children's Services, I spent many nights here.When children first arrive at ECS they are taken through a metal detector by security. Some carry garbage bags containing their clothes; others tightly clutch just the one item they brought from home. Each is accompanied by an ACS child protective caseworker, who is given a number and waits to be called to check the kids in. On a busy night, of which there are many, this can take hours.

In the waiting room, some tattered old books and the odd toy lie about. A green banner hangs year round saying, "Seasons Greetings From Pre-Placement" and does little to conceal the cracking paint. The children hungrily eye a vending machine in the corner and beg their caseworkers for candy. And the caseworkers say, No way.

Some of these kids, who range from newborn babies to 17-year-olds, have been rescued from seriously abusive or neglectful parents. Others are here for reasons that are ambiguous, unjustified, even arbitrary. But they all come to the same dim room on Laight Street. And because the city's Administration for Children's Services has identified them as children in danger, this is the first of many unfamiliar places they'll be seeing as they journey through the city's foster care system.

Like me, the other caseworkers here are exhausted. Most of them are on the phone or stare up at the television hung from the wall. It is not part of the job to comfort the children just plucked from their homes. They are irritated and want to get home.

When I first started coming to ECS, I tried to reach out to all the children who were crying or sitting alone, shocked and terrified. It was easier with the little ones, because I could hug them and they would immediately respond. But the older ones were different. I asked them, "Do you know why you are here?" Chances were that they had only a vague idea; ACS investigators often do not tell the children they are removing exactly what is going on. Most of the time the kids shrugged and said, "I don't know." Or they knew pieces, like, "Because mommy didn't clean the house." Often it was, "Because mommy got arrested."
The more I ended up at ECS, the harder it became to comfort these children. When you had no idea where a child was going to end up that night, it was impossible to assure them of anything. When a child asks, "Am I going to get split up from my little brother?" you can't say no. Although all efforts are supposed to be made to place siblings together, there are countless exceptions. Instead you have to say, "Let's hope not, okay?"

One night I was at ECS with a 3-year-old named Christopher, whom I had picked up from a precinct in East Harlem. His mother was arrested that day on drug charges. He had been living in a crack house, according to the police who took him, and his arms and legs were caked with dirt. All he had with him was a pacifier and a scarf. I pulled the pacifier out of his mouth and asked him, "Are you going to talk to me?" He looked at me and said, "Fuck off." Other than this, he didn't speak.
In the waiting room he pulled a chair out from under a girl his age as she went to sit down. After she fell, crying, he jumped up and down, pointing and laughing at her. I tried to engage him, to keep Christopher from terrorizing the other children. Then another caseworker came in. He lifted him by one arm and shouted in his face, "Listen, you brat. You better sit down and SHUT UP." He tossed Christopher onto the couch and he bounced, landing on his head. The caseworker warned, "Don't even think about moving. I'm watching you." Christopher did not move or even cry. He looked at me for help.

The caseworker explained to me defensively, "That's the only way these kids listen. That's how they are treated at home, so that's the only way to get through to them." And I wondered, silently: If we aren't treating these children any better than they were treated in their homes, then what are we doing?

To the manager at ACS who makes the fateful decision to remove a child, and to the judge who approves it, a child exists on a piece of paper, alongside a list of disturbing circumstances. They don't see a child having a panic attack at 3 a.m. because he is suddenly alone in the world. Or slamming his head against a wall out of protest and desperation. The good intentions that go into the decision to remove a child often have little to do with the sometimes brutal outcomes of that choice. And the problem is not simply caseworkers who do not know how to talk to children. The whole system does not treat children with dignity and respect.

Usually, the kids fell asleep in my lap during the car rides to their new foster homes. But Christopher stayed awake all the way to his new home in Staten Island, until 3 a.m. He stared out the car window and watched Manhattan recede in the distance. He seemed to know exactly what was happening, like an adult trapped in a little body that couldn't speak. But when I finally had to leave him, he did what any 3-year-old would do in the face of abandonment. He clung for his life to my leg.
When I graduated from college two years ago, I decided to become a caseworker for ACS. I wanted to learn how child welfare policy affects children and their families--not from reports and data, but on the front lines.
It may seem hard to imagine now, but in many ways I loved my job and had no plans to do anything else. As a caseworker, I was in a unique position to advocate for children and parents when they most needed help. Many of the parents and children I encountered made deep impressions on me, and I established close connections with some of them. I also enjoyed the investigative aspect of the job, the thrill of constantly going into unknown situations. At first, I saw it as a daily adventure.

But it did not take long for me to see that there was no adventure here. Many of these families were harassed, their rights systematically violated by ACS. Their children were being swallowed up by an agency that too often operated on virtually unchecked authority, wielded arbitrarily. And I represented that agency.
More and more, I felt that I could not do the job I believed I needed to do with an ACS badge around my neck. I resigned from the agency in October 1999, after working there for just over a year. After all that I had experienced, I felt, like many of my clients, crippled by feelings of powerlessness. At the time, the only thing I could do was write it all down.

In the year I worked there, the Administration for Children's Services investigated more than 50,000 reports of child abuse and neglect. I handled about 50 of them in my job as a child protective caseworker in the Manhattan field office. I went all over the city investigating cases--to housing projects, family shelters and, once, to an apartment where a father had made a robot for his kids out of old Metrocards. But except for the time I visited a family on the Upper West Side--who hired their own doctors to disprove ACS's allegations of child abuse--my work took me to low-income neighborhoods. The reality is that families who are likely to be reported to ACS are poor.

When I first started the job, my supervisor explained to me that bad caseworkers sympathize with the parents. "Being sentimental," he said, "is the worst way to be." If you relate to the parent, the wisdom goes, you cannot conduct an objective investigation.

The entire investigation process relies on the assumption that parents do not know their rights, starting with the moment they allow caseworkers to come into their homes. A lot of these families are so conditioned to caseworkers knocking on their doors that the presence of a city worker in their homes is just another part of life. Nearly half a million New York City children have been the subjects of ACS investigations. If you are poor and if you have had problems with the law, if you have ever been involved in a domestic violence dispute, if you took your child to the emergency room after an accident, if you have ever used drugs, if your children have problems in school, if you have ever been homeless, ACS has been a part of your life.
Child protective specialists get about two to three new cases each week, sent to them by their supervisors. Those supervisors have their own supervisors, called managers. It's managers who sign off on the big decisions: whether a case is worth pursuing and, most critically, when to put children into foster care.
For a caseworker, each case represents a heavy set of tasks and responsibilities. First, unless the call was anonymous, she must contact the source of the report. Many calls come from professionals required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect, such as guidance counselors, guidance counselors and hospital social workers. Other people call in reports, too, especially neighbors and family members. But many of these reports turn out to be false, and some of them are made purely for revenge.

Within 24 hours of a report, the caseworker has to visit the family at home. Caseworkers must interview each child and examine them all for marks and bruises. They must also interview every other member of the household, check every room for safety, check refrigerators and cabinets for food. Immunization records, birth certificates and proof of income must be verified. Next, caseworkers contact the children's schools and doctors. And in cases that involve drug allegations, the caseworker must accompany the parent to a drug test.

At any point during the investigation, a manager can order children to be removed from their homes if it is determined that their lives are at risk. But under state law and ACS policy, removals are supposed to be a last resort. As an alternative, the agency offers a menu of services to help families deal with problems; counseling, parenting classes, drug treatment and housekeeping services are the most typical.

These investigations and interventions save children's lives and protect their well-being all the time. Caseworkers are trained to look beneath the surface, to not trust a parent's statement without evidence and to compile as much information about a family as possible. Caseworkers and their supervisors are accountable for each case; the days when cases piled up on desks without anyone contacting a family are long over.

But accountability, at ACS, is a one-way street. A manager or supervisor has no one to answer to if a child who shouldn't be in foster care is removed from home anyway. There is no penalty for the wrongful taking of a child. And the pressures to remove are intense. I was trained to do removals in cases that did not necessarily qualify as abuse or neglect because, as one of my supervisors reminded me, "prevention is better than a cure." When I was resistant to doing a removal on a case, that same supervisor's advice was, "It's better to be safe than sorry." And at moments of uncertainty, the mantra was "Cover your ass"--a phrase heard often around the office. It was backed up by a pervasive fear--among caseworkers, supervisors, managers and attorneys--of seeing our photograph in the Daily News as the person who made an error that was literally fatal.

Caseworkers, usually the only people who have had direct contact with a family, don't have much to say in the decision-making process. Managers generally think of them as being incapable of giving meaningful recommendations. One week after the investigation begins, caseworkers have to file an electronic report. The computer offers two options: "safe" and "unsafe." But my manager accepted only one. Any time I determined a child to be "safe," my manager rejected it and returned it to me. The first step to protect yourself, I quickly discovered, is to determine that a child is "unsafe" from the outset of an investigation.
In my division, if the allegations were bad enough--and especially if they came from a teacher, doctor, or other professional required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect--our manager considered them to be absolute truth. Virtually every time, if a caseworker could not find evidence to prove that the allegations were unfounded, the manager would refuse to sign off on a case, clearing it from our ever-growing caseloads, until we marked it "indicated" in the computer system. Indicated means that ACS has found credible evidence that abuse or neglect has taken place.

Our manager indicated a case in which an 18-year-old mother was mistakenly picked up in a drug sweep and immediately released. The same woman had been indicated in an earlier investigation, after hot tea spilled on her child at a family shelter, even though the social worker whose tea it was witnessed that it was an accident. Still, the manager decided that this previous incident--along with a robbery conviction and marijuana use before the child was born--was reason enough to indicate the new case.

Throughout ACS, the proportion of cases that end up labeled indicated has jumped from 26 percent in 1994 to nearly 40 percent in 1998. From a manager's point of view, indicating cases gives them the legal leverage they need to order a removal at any given time. For a parent, it also means something else: Having an indicated case on her record means that she cannot adopt a child, become a foster parent or work with children in any capacity.

From there, the decision to remove is entirely up to the manager. By law, children are supposed to be removed only if their physical or emotional health has been harmed or they are in immediate danger or being hurt as a result of a parent's failure to "exercise a minimum degree of care." In practice, that can mean anything from a parent failing to show up for parenting classes to sending her child to the hospital with a broken limb. But sometimes children are removed for reasons the caseworkers themselves cannot fathom.
On the night I met a client I'll call Louise at the homeless shelter where she lived, she told me her 11-day-old son, Kevin, was born without drugs in his body. That she prayed to God and he gave her another chance. And that she got clean on her own, without any program. I asked her about her other children and she told me what I already knew: She had given birth to five children who were all taken away from her while she was still in the hospital because each time she tested positive for crack.

Back at the office, my manager ordered me to remove Kevin. My manager, like most of her colleagues, did not go for the "life transformation" stuff. It did not matter that all of Louise's drug tests had been clean for the past two years. The manager called it a straight case of neglect, since the woman's other children had all been taken from her. Besides, my manager reminded me, Louise is taking heavy psychotropic medication.

Before going to court, we received a letter written by Louise's psychiatrist, whom she had seen regularly for the past year. He wrote:
I remember thinking in her case no medication and certainly no therapy had been able to have the effect on her that her new child has had on her....The effect of the role of motherhood on her has defined her and given her grounding. It is our social and moral responsibility to support [Louise] in functioning as a mother. It is clear that [Louise] is ill. However, it is my assessment, in accord with all other senior clinicians [here], that [Louise] poses no immediate threat to her child.
My manager didn't see things the same way, and she made me file the case in court. "If we can't get a neglect finding on this mother, I might as well go work for the Parks Department," she told me. When ACS's attorneys initially wouldn't accept the case, she emailed the head of the legal division. And while I was away at a three-day training, she finally managed to get Kevin into foster care. Louise had stayed overnight with Kevin's father that week after she missed curfew at her shelter, and my manager had found an old order of protection against him--evidence of domestic violence. Louise was nailed with "failure to protect" Kevin from this potentially dangerous man.

(Only later did Louise tell me that she did not really have a history of domestic violence; she made it up a few years ago since she knew it was the only way she could qualify for emergency housing. I explained to her that it was the only reason ACS was able to take Kevin. "Well, what would you have done?" she asked me.)

In Family Court, Louise spoke up for herself, because her attorney did not. She argued her case herself and, with the help of testimony from her psychiatric nurse, won the judge over. Louise got Kevin back on the condition that she secure housing, submit to drug tests, continue to see her psychiatrist and comply with ACS supervision.

The ability to return a child to his or her parent is one of the few rewards of a caseworker's job. After picking up Kevin from his foster care agency in Queens, I sat with him in the Emergency Assistance Unit, the city's dispatch center for homeless families, waiting for his mother to arrive. The waiting room was filled with mothers and crying kids. A little girl came in the waiting area and asked the lady behind the counter for a piece of paper. "No paper," was the curt reply. I told the girl to come over to where I was sitting. My hands were full because I was feeding Kevin, but I told her that she could rip some pages out of my notebook. She stood there and tore out about 30 pages, one at a time. Every few moments she looked up at me waiting for me to say no. I just smiled at her. "That your baby?" she asked me.

"No," I told her.
"You homeless?"
I shook my head.
"You took that baby, didn't you?" she asked.
"I'm giving him back."
"Yeah, you better," she warned.
In my year at ACS, I was lucky to see only a few children who were severely abused and neglected. I did see bruises, belt marks and burns on kids. I saw dirty and hungry children. I saw a baby with cockroaches crawling in her crib. There were kids who had never been to school. I had to ask a kindergartner if her father put his penis in her mouth. I sat in the back of an ambulance with a 9-year-old boy lying on a stretcher who had been beaten up by his mother with a baseball bat. He clutched his HIP card, his only possession now, in his swollen hand. I had a 3-year-old child whose mother forced him to stay awake for four days and three nights because she thought he was possessed by a ghost and would die if he fell asleep. And I met some parents who were dangerous not just to their children, but to me. I had to get an order of protection for myself against one, and was warned by another that I was going to be killed by the Bloods outside Family Court. But all this is what I expected from the job. In a strange way, these really horrible cases turned out to be the easy ones. It was the cases that weren't so clear-cut that kept me up at night. I saw removals occur when parents were accused of failing to follow up with a preventive service program or counseling. Breaking rules at shelters. Using or selling marijuana, or not sending their children to school. Failure-to-protect cases were common. One time, I removed a child from a mother accused of neglecting her infant son when she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. It turned out the child was not yet even born when the suicide attempt occurred.
I worried about what I would do if my manager ordered me to remove. I worried about making mistakes myself.
Two nights before Christmas 1998, I removed two children who I still believe should not have been taken from their home. I had been a caseworker at ACS for two months.At the last minute, my supervisor instructed me to accompany an even greener coworker on a case I knew nothing about. On the way up the FDR, in the back of the city car, my colleague, Theresa, described the case to me. The children were to be removed because their 82-year-old great-grandmother, Ms. Ruth Jackson, was too old to care for them. Owen, 5, and Carla, 14, were in Ms. Jackson's legal custody, because their mother and grandmother were both absent, allegedly because of drug use.
According to the allegations from an after-school program she attended, Carla had recently slashed a girl in the face with a pocketknife at school and was beyond the great-grandmother's control. Theresa told me Ms. Jackson had medical problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and glaucoma. Due to her "failing health," our supervisor believed that she was not an appropriate caretaker for the children. The supervisor instructed Theresa to ask the great-grandmother to sign a form that would voluntarily place the children in ACS's custody. Theresa told me that she was instructed to call the police and remove the children only if the woman refused to sign the form. Our supervisor had informed Theresa that a refusal to sign would constitute neglect, because Ms. Jackson would not be complying with the best interests of the children.

"I don't believe that this is the right thing," Theresa complained to me. "The great-grandmother hasn't done anything wrong, and her health seems fine." I was furious at her for not telling me any of this before we left. I knew the options a family could be offered in a time of stress. A removal was to be done only in an emergency.

When we arrived, Ms. Jackson looked at us suspiciously and seemed reluctant to let us in. Decorated for Christmas, the apartment smelled like greasy chicken. It was 9 at night.

She instructed the children to go to their rooms. She sat on the sagging couch and asked, "What can I do for you ladies tonight?" She looked a little frail but seemed strong-willed.

I sat in the corner by the Christmas tree while Theresa tried to explain about the voluntary form. "You are old and you have so many health problems," she told Ms. Jackson unconvincingly. "Who will take care of the children if something should happen to you?"

Ms. Jackson said, "Ain't nothing happening to me. What if something happens to you?"
Theresa tried again. "It's not safe for the children to be living with you because you are too old to care for them properly and look after them." She looked at the floor as she said this, her voice shaking.
"What're you saying, miss? These children are not going anywhere. Nobody in this house is too old. I raised them kids since they were babies. The court gave me these children and nobody's going to take them away from me."
"My supervisor said that..."
"My supervisor"
"Your what?"
"My supervisor. He wants you to sign this voluntary form so that the children will be safe." She placed the blank form on the coffee table.

"I don't know much about your supervisor, but nobody's signing these kids to them foster people. It's Christmas. Did you know that, dear?"After about 15 minutes of this, Theresa signaled me to call the police. Out in the hallway I called 911, then went back into the apartment to wait for the cops.
Ms. Jackson had no idea they were coming. "Who would want to take these children?" she asked us. "It's Christmas. These children are happy. I take these children to school every day. I make sure they have everything they need to get along fine." The cops banged on the door. "Who's that?" asked Ms. Jackson. "That your supervisor?"

I answered the door. Two cops stood around and did not say much. Theresa started crying, and everything fell into my hands. I explained to Ms. Jackson that the children were coming with us tonight and that she would have to come to court tomorrow to get them back. I had packed kids up quickly once before, so I braced myself to do it again.

The kids were watching The Brady Bunch, lying with their feet up on their great-grandmother's bed. I introduced myself and told Carla to pack up some clothes for herself and her brother. She looked at me as if the prospect of leaving might be exciting for a second. Owen wanted to know if "grandma" was coming. I told him no, and said some things about how everything was going to be okay. Ms. Jackson came in and put clean underwear on Owen, put his pajamas back on, and packed some clothes in a backpack for him.
As we continued to pack, Ms. Jackson stood in the bedroom doorway with her mouth half-open, no sound coming out. Carla ran down the stairs and waited for us in front of the police car.

In the back of the car on our way to ECS, Owen saw his big sister crying. He sat on my lap and started crying into my shirt.
Almost all removals take place at night. Caseworkers are too busy during the day, and a family is also more likely to be home after dark. But some workers deliberately wait till after hours, for the time-and-a-half overtime. Doing a removal, staying out all night at ECS, and then taking the child to a foster home can mean more than doubling a day's pay. With caseworkers' salaries starting at under $32,000, overtime makes a big difference.

The caseworkers who want nothing to do with removals can rely on other caseworkers who volunteer for the money. When supervisors are desperate to find someone to do a removal, they often encourage caseworkers by reminding them, "You could use the extra cash." The consequence is caseworkers arriving at ECS with no idea why they just removed the kids who are with them. When the ECS intake worker or an ACS lawyer asks them why the children were removed, "I don't know, it's not my case" is a standard response. Or simply, "Because my supervisor told me to."

Any caseworker can tell you that they have done removals that they did not personally agree with. But they rarely complain to management, since they will never get in trouble for removing a child under supervisors' orders. Caseworkers are also quiet about unnecessary removals because doing a removal and then transferring a case to foster care takes them a lot less time than keeping it and trying to work with a family. Keeping a case obligates a worker to do regular home visits and follow-ups to make sure a family is getting preventive services. It also means dealing with anything that may go wrong and continuing to be responsible for the children's safety.

To become a child protective caseworker, you do not need to have any experience working with children, or demonstrate that you actually want to work with children. No one even asks if you like children. You must simply have a bachelor's degree in a social science field and pass a two-part exam. For the oral part we were asked to think of five questions we would ask a parent, based on a short case scenario. A "powerful rotting odor" is supposed to prompt test-takers to ask, "What is that smell?" For the written test, we listened to a series of voice mail recordings and wrote down phone numbers and other details. This was not a test of common sense, or even listening skills. It seemed to be a test to see if we were alive.

Once hired, caseworkers have six weeks of training, where they are taught how to conduct interviews, identify abuse and neglect, and carry out a removal. Legal issues, child development, domestic violence, sensitivity to cultural issues and handling angry clients were also part of the curriculum. Through it all, caseworkers are taught, it is essential to treat clients respectfully and professionally.

But the social work lingo of the training, where we spent two days discussing the need to "leave your baggage at the door," is far removed from the harsh reality of a field office. For new caseworkers, the obsessive concern with liability at the field offices quickly overshadows the reasonable criteria they have been taught for identifying abuse and neglect. Most quickly learn to abandon their training and to do what it takes to survive.

ACS has been making strides cutting down heavy caseloads, but it's still a stressful and at times tedious job--each case, no matter how trivial, calls for the same 15-page report. A contradiction at the heart of it all makes the work even more difficult. Caseworkers are trained to be service providers and advocates for families. To work together with families to uncover and solve problems in the home, caseworkers must establish an intimate rapport with their clients. Yet at the very same time they are engaged in an act of betrayal: as they write down parents' statements and survey their homes and behavior, caseworkers are building a potential court case against them. At no point are they able to tell their clients that everything they say can be used against them in court. The relationship of caseworker and client becomes one of manipulation, characterized by a deep lack of trust on both sides.
Although many of the best caseworkers get fed up and leave the agency, there are good workers who have been at ACS for years. They have survived because they have learned how to manipulate the system to make it work for themselves and their clients. They purposely omit or obscure facts about families in their case records and in their discussions with their supervisors to save clients from unnecessary court action. The most fortunate have supervisors who share their commitment to respecting families' rights. I was one of them: One of my supervisors was a mentor to me, and I considered her directives highly valuable.

Several months before I left the agency, an Emergency Children's Services supervisor who was resigning after more than 10 years blanketed the agency with a stunning email. He began by saying that he is not leaving the agency any better than when he started. He blamed this lack of improvement on ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, whom he accused of being more preoccupied with making the agency look good in the media than with making substantial changes that help clients. "ACS cares more about statistics than they do about children, forgetting that those statistics represent real children," he wrote. The supervisor had equally harsh words for protective caseworkers: "ACS workers cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for doing wrong removals by blaming them on their supervisors or managers or on agency policy." He compared the level of obedience and complacency at the agency to Nazi soldiers who killed 11 million civilians during World War II because "they too were just carrying out orders." Nobody around me talked about the email, not even to disagree.
Carla and Owen were placed in foster care that night. The next day, Theresa went to court. The judge, who happened to be in his seventies himself, ordered that Owen be returned home immediately. The judge stated the obvious: Old age is not grounds for neglect. Carla, however, was to remain in foster care because of her behavior problems. When the judge asked Theresa if she felt the children were in imminent danger, she answered that in her opinion they were not.
Callie Thornton
Callie Thornton
Callie Thornton
Callie Thornton
Callie Thornton
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Callie Thornton
Published: 1:42PM BST 12 Apr 2010

A senior social worker falsely claimed to have made 70 visits to children at the 'highest level of risk' when in fact she had delegated the job to a student colleague, a hearing was told.

Charon Salisbury was assigned eight youngsters on the child protection register but left the work to her junior colleague who was not authorised to carry out the checks, it was claimed.

The student worker only conducted a 'small portion' of the visits leaving the children exposed to an 'extremely high risk of violence' in their homes, the General Social Care Council heard.  to read more
Callie Thornton
Last Updated: April 8, 2010 11:13am

Noah Kirkman turned 12 nearly two weeks ago.

The last time he slept in his own bed, back home in Calgary, he was ten.

If it started as a holiday, the boy’s trip to Oregon, it’s now become a two-year-long nightmare, rife with red tape.

And the strange case of Noah Kirkman is on the verge of becoming an international incident.

On Friday, a judge in Oregon will determine what to do with the Canadian child seized by the State of Oregon and placed in foster care, despite having a mother and family in Calgary desperate to get him back.

“We’re hoping the judge will back out of his position, but there’s also a chance he will say ‘screw you,’” said Lisa Kirkman, Noah’s 34-year-old mother.
to read more
Callie Thornton


  A Report from the Best Practices in Adoptions Workshops
A Project of the Georgia Model Courts Project

A.Introduction...............................................Pg 1

B.Resource Guidelines of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges..........................................Pg 2

B.Best Practices in Termination and Adoption.................Pg 3

1.How does a case move to termination and adoption?..........Pg 3

2.What triggers the best practices in termination and adoption?
.............................................................Pg 4

3.How and when should the decision to move to termination and adoption be made?............................................Pg 4

4.What is involved in staffing a case, and when should it be done?........................................................Pg 4

5.When should the case be turned over to the Agency Counsel?.Pg 4

6.What can be done to avoid delays once the case has been turnedover to the Agency Council?............................Pg 5

7.At what point should reunification services be iscontinued?Pg 5

8.When must the Agency Counsel file the Petition to Termenate 
Parental Rights?.............................................Pg 5

9.What can the Court do to ensure that petitions are timely filed?.......................................................Pg 5

10.When should the hearing be set?...........................Pg 6

11.What can be done to avoid service related delays in the trial?.......................................................Pg 6

12.When should the termination of parental rights hearing begin?.......................................................Pg 6

13.How can the Court ensure effective representation of parents and children?................................................Pg 6

14.What can be done to avoid delays in trial?................Pg 6

15.Should the Court conduct pretrial conferences.............Pg 7

16.What can be done to avoid lawyer conflicts?...............Pg 7

17.What should be done when a termination case has to be continued?...................................................Pg 7

18.What are the time frames for getting orders terminating parental rights signed and filed?............................Pg 7

19.What is the Court’s responsibility to make the Office of Adoptions aware that a termination of parental rights order has been entered?................................................Pg 7

20.What is the responsibility of the Office of Adoptions to keep the Court informed of the identity of children not Adopted...Pg 7

21.When can the Agency submit a request to the Office of Adoptions for funding a life history (adoption study)?.......Pg 8

22.What can be done to speed up the adoption study?..........Pg 8

23.When should post-termination judicial reviews be conducted?
.............................................................Pg 8

24.Within what time frame should the Form 33 be signed?......Pg 8

25.When should the search for adoptive resources begin?......Pg 8

26.What efforts should be made to identify adoptive resources?
.............................................................Pg 9

27.What can be done about relatives who surface at the last minute, either just prior to the hearing on the petition to terminate parental rights or after termination, but prior to disposition?.................................................Pg 9

28. Is “best practices” the same as reasonable efforts?......Pg 9

C. Conclusion. ..............................................Pg 9


  • A Report from the Best Practices in Adoptions Workshop
  • A Project of the Georgia Model Courts Project
  • A.Introduction.

  • On May 11, 2002,
  • a group of more than forty child welfare professionals met in LaGrange, Georgia
  •  to review current practices relative to termination of parental rights and adoption in deprivation cases,
  • and to begin to identify best practices designed to move children to permanency through adoption more timely and efficiently.
  • Out of that group was formed a workgroup (herein referred to as the “Workgroup”),
  • whose responsibility it was to review the  work of the larger group
  • and identify specific practices and ideas for consideration by the larger group.
  • The Workgroup, consisting of the following participants, met in Atlanta
  • on July 24, 2002.

  1. Judge Michael Key, Troup County Juvenile Court
  2. Judge Van Banke, Clayton County Juvenile Court
  3. Judge Velma Tilley, Bartow County Juvenile Court
  4. Sandy Gobel, Supervisor from Cobb County Department of Family and Children Services
  5. Sheila Waterman, from the Office of Adoptions
  6. Mary Hermann, from the Child Advocates Office of the Fulton County Juvenile Court
  7. Tania Brooke, Supervisor Troup County Department of Family and Children Services
  8. Lori Bramlett, Model Court Coordinator Also contributing to the work of the Workgroup was
  9. Tammy Reed, Region Adoption Coordinator for the Office of Adoptions.

  • Working from notes made by Lori and
  • from the collective memory and experience of its members,
  • the Workgroup began the process by discussing where in the process the best practices should begin.
  • Then, we followed the process through, step by step, until final adoption.
  • An initial report was drafted,
  • disseminated to the members of the Workgroup,
  • modified in response to comments from the members of the Workgroup,
  • and submitted to all of the attendees of the May workshop.
  • On December 6, 2002, the original group, with some noteworthy additions, met in Dublin, Georgia.
  • Consensus was reached as to most of the report.
  • All of the agencies represented in the project were asked to review the final draft
  • and to note their exceptions, all of which are shown on
  • Exhibit “A”. A complete list of persons and agencies represented at the two workshops is appended to this Report.

B. Resource Guidelines of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

  • Before getting into the Georgia-specific best practices set out in Section C of this report, we would like to commend to you the two resource guidelines developed and published by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (”NCJFCJ”).
  • The first guideline is entitled RESOURCE GUIDELINES:Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (referred to herein as the “Resource Guidelines”).
  • That book sets out best practices in the handling of child abuse and neglect cases from the beginning of a case until permanency is achieved.
  • The Resource Guidelines served as the basis for the Aspirational Guidelines adopted by the Council of Juvenile Court Judges (“CJCJ”), which,
  • together with the Resource Guidelines, serve as the foundation for court improvement under the Georgia Model Courts Project.
  • The second book, ADOPTION AND PERMANENCY GUIDELINES: Improving Court Practices in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (referred to herein as the “Adoption Guidelines”), builds on the Resource Guidelines and focuses on adoption and other alternative permanency options.
  • Every model court in Georgia is committed to making its best efforts to comply with the Resource Guidelines, the Aspirational Guidelines, the Adoption Guidelines, and, now, these Best Practices in Termination and Adoption Cases
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The Adoption Guidelines point out the following five issues covered by the Resource Guidelines that are important to the effective implementation of the Adoption Guidelines:
  • Early identification and involvement of absent parents;
  • Early identification and involvement of relatives;
  • Ensuring availability of quality plans and services to the family to assist with reunification;
  • Complying with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children; and
  • Complying with the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Resource Guidelines, Page 10.
Although all five of the foregoing issues are important, the first three are involved in all cases, whereas the last two issues arise only in a limited number of cases. Before beginning to discuss the best practices in termination and adoption cases, it would be worthwhile to include direct quotes from Pages 10 and 11 of the Adoption Guidelines:

  • C. Early Identification and Involvement of Absent Parents.
  • At the very first hearing on petition alleging abuse and neglect, efforts should begin to include all parents involved in the life of the child and to locate absent parents.
  • Putative fathers must be located and brought into the court process as quickly as possible.
  • Timely resolution of paternity issues is both in the best interest of the child and
  • essential to avoiding delays at subsequent points in the court process.
  •  The Court must ensure that the efforts of the child welfare Agency are thorough and diligent in locating and involving all legal and putative parents.
  • “Early Identification and Involvement of It is equally important, particularly when a child must be removed from the home, to identify all relatives.  
  • Relatives of the mother, father, or putative father(s) and to investigate all of these relatives as potential caretakers for the child.
  • Courts should not make the presumption that because the parents have serious problems, all of the relatives must also have serious problems.
  • Relatives generally know the child better and often have a familial commitment to the care of the child.
  • An appropriate relative who is willing to provide care is almost always a preferable caretaker to a non-relative.
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  •  When courts and agencies have not conducted thorough relative searches and reunification is ruled out, they can be faced with the difficulty of deciding between adoption by a foster parent with whom the child has bonded and a relative who is appropriate but did not previously know of the child’s need for a permanent home.
  • If, however, the relative search was thorough and a relative who has previously chosen not to come forward changes his or her mind, the preference for keeping the child with relatives diminishes.
  • When courts and agencies do their job thoroughly, they should not have to choose between a foster parent adoption or a relative adoption.
  • “Ensuring Quality Plans and Services are Available to the Family to Assist with Reunification.
  • If the needs of a child and family have not been thoroughly assessed and appropriate services made available to families to assist with reunification, the parents may have a valid argument at the permanency hearing that reasonable efforts have not been made to reunify them with their child.
  • This situation can cause a significant delay in achieving permanency for the child by
  • delaying the child’s reunification,
  • delaying the Court’s ability to terminate parental rights, or
  • setting up the possibility of reversal by the court of appeals.”
The Adoption Guidelines also suggest the use of the following tools to promote timely adoptions:
  • concurrent planning;
  • foster-adopt homes;
  • and family decision making.
  • Each of these issues should be studied in more detail by the individual courts and determinations made as to how these tools could be used in their communities.
The Adoption Guidelines serve as a great backdrop to the best practices set out herein in Section C, and should be read and implemented in combination with the best practices. Although the individual works have value independently, the most benefit will be achieved when used together.

C. Best Practices in Termination and Adoption. Following are the best practices adopted by the participants of the Model Courts Project:

3. How does a case move to termination and adoption?
  • There are two ways that a case can move to termination and adoption.
  • One way is in those rare cases where a thirty-day case plan is filed that does not contain a plan for reunification.
  • In those cases, a permanency hearing must be held within thirty days.
  • The more common way a case moves to termination and adoption is where there is a reunification plan in place and
  • the decision is made at some point along the way that reunification is not likely and that
  • the case should move to an alternative permanency plan i.e.,
  • permanent relative custody,
  • legal guardianship,
  • termination and adoption,
  • or another planned permanent living arrangement.
  • No matter which road we take, the roads converge at some point and the process is the same.
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4. What triggers the best practices in termination and adoption?
  • In those rare cases where a reunification plan is never filed, it is the decision not to file a reunification plan that triggers these best practices.
  • In those cases where a reunification plan is in place, our time frames are triggered by adoption following termination becoming the primary plan.
  • At some point, whether we have only a reunification plan, or whether we have a concurrent plan, a casemanager makes a determination that successful reunification is not the likely outcome in the case.
5. How and when should the decision to move to termination and adoption be made?
  • Evaluation of the likelihood of reunification should be an ongoing process, rather than just something that is done as part of a review of the case or case plan preparatory to a periodic review.
  • The appropriateness of the permanency plan should be reviewed internally by the Agency not less than monthly
  • and that review should be documented in the file.
  • The specific method of review should be decided by the individual county, but
  • there should be a specific policy.
6. What is involved in staffing a case, and when should it be done?
  • From the time the decision is made by a casemanager that reunification is not likely, the case should be staffed within a reasonable time following that decision.
  • What is meant by “staffed” will vary from county to county.
  • In some counties, staffing means the casemanager going into the office of the supervisor and discussing the case.
  • In other counties, there are formal, regularly scheduled staffings of cases in a group setting.
  • However it is done in any given county, the staffing needs to be systematic, not left to chance, and
  • the official decision to move to termination and adoption needs to be made within a reasonable time following the time the casemanager makes the realization that reunification is not likely,  
  • but, in any event, within thirty days.
  • Where the Agency does not move to termination and adoption without review by the Special Assistant Attorney General representing the Agency (herein referred to as the “Agency Counsel”), that review should also be completed within the thirty days.
7. When should the case be turned over to the Agency Counsel.
  • From the time the case is staffed and a move to termination and adoption approved within the Agency, the case should be turned over to the Agency Counsel within thirty days.
  • In some counties, either the Agency, the Court, or both, prefer to send a case to a panel for review prior to moving to termination.
  • In those counties, the case should be submitted to Agency Counsel and panel concurrently.
  • Also, in those counties, the internal agency review process should be coordinated from a timing standpoint so as to not cause delays by having to wait for the panel to convene.
  • The panels should be receptive to doing interim reviews when requested to do so to avoid delays in the Agency moving forward with termination.
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8. What can be done to avoid delays once the case has been turned over to the Agency Counsel? 
  • There is now a standard packet to be used to turn a termination case over to the Agency Counsel.
  • If the packet is complete and accurate, the Agency Counsel should be able to move forward with termination without delay.
  • The use of the standard packet, properly completed, is, in and of itself, a best practice.
9. At what point should reunification services be discontinued?
  • The best practice is to continue to offer reunification services until the petition to terminate parental rights is heard
  • unless there is a specific finding by the Court that continuation of reunification efforts is, in fact, detrimental to the child.
  • This is a high threshold that should not be compromised.
  • discontinuation of reunification services is not a condition precedent to the filing of a termination action and,
  • in fact, discontinuation of reunification services prior to termination seems to be in disfavor with the Court of Appeals.
  • The Workgroup believes that, unless actual harm would result to the child, reunification services should continue to be offered up to the time parental rights are terminated.
  • There was some concern expressed about this practice making for unnecessary work for the Agency and the panels.
  • However, the reunification plan is already in place and
  • all that has to be done is to monitor progress. Also,
  • in most of these cases, the parents are not, in fact, accessing  the services offered anyway, so
  • there is not a lot of work involved in offering and monitoring services.
  • We believe that the value in offering the services and the impact that may have in the appellate courts outweighs the disadvantages of continuing to offer services.
  • This approach also allows us to avoid the necessity of having a permanency hearing except in cases where it is absolutely necessary,
  •  that is where actual detriment to the child can be clearly established. Keep in mind also that,
  • if the time frames proposed herein are met, we are not talking about continuing to offer the services for an extended  period of time.
10. When must the Agency Counsel file the Petition to Terminate Parental Rights?
  • Under guidelines established by the Attorney General, the Agency Counsel has 30 days to file the Petition from the date he or she receives the termination packet from the Agency.
  • By agreement between the state Agency and the Attorney General, if the  Agency Counsel does not perform timely, the county director should contact the area director
  • who should contact the Director of Legal Services for the Division of Family & Children Services to report that failure.
  • This is not an issue of “snitching”- it is an issue of system oversight.
11. What can the Court do to ensure that petitions are timely filed?
  •  Each court should put oversight in place for review to ensure compliance with the 30-day time frame set out in the preceding section.
  • Because of the multitude of ways things are done around the state, the Workgroup could not reach a consensus on a specific way for the Court to exercise oversight in this area.
  • One way is for the Court to be notified by the Agency when a termination packet is sent to the Agency Counsel,
  • and for the Court to set the case down for a status call immediately following the expiration of the thirty day period.
  • The case can come off the calendar if it is filed,
  • or the Court could leave the case on the calendar to exercise other oversight responsibilities, such as
  • making certain that counsel is timely appointed, etc.
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12. When should the hearing be set?
  • The Court should set the hearing date at the time of filing the petition.
  •  This is the Court’s responsibility.
  • Recognizing that there are all sorts of issues involved in setting a case (not the least of which is scheduling conflicts), the case should be set down at the earliest possible date,
  • monitored by the Court for readiness for trial, and
  • continued only when necessary.
  • There are ways that the Court can avoid scheduling conflicts.
  • One is to work out an arrangement with the Superior and State Courts, which is where the majority of conflicts occur, whereby, on certain days of the week or month,termination of parental rights cases will have priority.
13. What can be done to avoid service related delays in the trial?
  • The Court needs to hold Agency and the Agency Counsel to a high standard in terms of making a diligent search for the parents.
  • Where the Agency alleges that the parent cannot be located and service by publication is necessary, the publication affidavit should be reviewed carefully before the Court allows publication notice instead of personal service.
  • There are certain minimum requirements in the policy manual.
  • The Workgroup agreed that a model form should be adopted around policy and good practice.
  • Evidence should be submitted that The Agency has used the Federal Parent Locator Service.
  • With the advent of web-based data bases, it is easier to locate people than it has ever been.
  • Every relative of the missing parent, whose contact information can be found, should be contacted.
  • The floor for the standards in regard to making a diligent search should be the policies,
  • and whatever is reasonable beyond that.
  • If a hearing needs to be held by the Court before allowing publication notice,then the hearing should be held within ten days from the filing of the petition.
14. When should the termination of parental rights hearing be held?
  • The termination of parental rights hearing should be held within 45-60 days in personal service cases, or
  • 90 days in publication cases.
15. How can the Court ensure effective representation of parents and children?
  • Wherever possible, the same attorney should represent each party and
  •  the same guardian ad litem (whether attorney, lay, or both) should represent each child throughout the process.
  • The Court should appoint attorneys upon the filing of the petition, and
  • get a copy of the petition to the attorney immediately upon appointment.
  • The parents should be advised as to the name and contact information for their attorney in the summons package.
16. What can be done to avoid delays in trial? Most delays are caused by scheduling conflicts and service issues.
  • The Court should work with attorneys and other judges to establish local protocols to avoid scheduling conflicts, and
  • the Court should deal with service upon the filing of the Petition, 
  • and put systems in place to monitor service so as to avoid delays. There are so many things that can cause delays, it is difficult
  • make an exhaustive list of practices to avoid them.
  • The best practice is that delays and continuances should be minimized systematically and not left to chance.
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17. Should the Court conduct pretrial conferences?
  • The Court needs to exercise oversight relative to the preparedness of cases for trial so as to avoid unnecessary delays, and
  • conduct pre-trial conferences as necessary.
  • Judge Jim Morris has produced a good checklist for pre-trial conferences that we will distribute, a copy of which is appended to this report.
18. What can be done to avoid lawyer conflicts?
  • The Workgroup believes that lawyer conflict rules should be changed so that only a jury trial scheduled more than thirty days prior to the termination of parental rights case being set will take precedence over the trial of a termination of parental rights case.
  • The Attorney General’s office should be requested to assure that the contract with Agency Counsel gives priority to termination cases over conflicts in other cases.
19. What should be done when a termination case has to be continued?
  • If a case has to be continued, the new date of trial should be set in court and everyone should be served before they leave court.
20. What are the time frames for getting orders terminating parental rights signed and filed?
  • Where the Agency Counsel drafts the order for the judge, the order should be drafted and submitted to the judge within fifteen working days following the hearing.
  • The judge should review and modify the order, and
  • file it within one week following receipt from the Agency Counsel.
  • When the judge drafts the order, the order should be completed and
  • filed within thirty days following the date of the hearing.
21. What is the Court’s responsibility to make the Office of Adoptions aware that a termination of parental rights order has been entered?
  • By statute, the Juvenile Court clerk should send orders terminating parental rights to the Office of Adoptions
  • within fifteen days following entry of the order.
  • Note that Agency policy encourages that county Agencies register children without identified adoptive resources with My Turn Now photo listing when they notify the Office of Adoptions that a child is free, which is
  • five to twelve days following termination.
22. What is the responsibility of the Office of Adoptions to keep the Court informed of the identity of children not adopted?
  • Although the Court, through its post-termination reviews, should have a good idea of the identity of children available for adoption,
  • the participants agreed that, in order to assist the Court with its oversight responsibilities, the adoption Office should provide to each judge a list of all children from that county awaiting adoption
  • at least annually.
  • However, there was a recognition that there are  currently some policy and, perhaps, legal, barriers to implementing this practice, but that should work to eliminate hose barriers.
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23. When can the Agency submit a request to the Office of Adoptions for funding a life history (adoption study)?
  • The Agency can now submit to the Office of Adoptions a request for funding for the life history (adoptions study) at the time the package is submitted to Agency Counsel.
  • The best practice is for the county to decide at the time the package is submitted to Agency Counsel whether it will be done in-house or done on contract.
  • If by contract, the funding request should be submitted to the Office of Adoptions at the time the package is submitted to the Agency Counsel.
  • In any event, the life history must be done within sixty days following termination of parental rights of either parent.
24. What can be done to speed up the adoption study?
  • It is recommended that the Agency use the same resource for First Placement/Best Placement and for the adoption study when possible
  •  Agencies should, when possible, contract for the First Placement/Best Placement study only with providers that also are approved to do the adoption study.
  • Agencies should develop a pool of providers to ensure that all required studies are completed timely.
25. When should post-termination judicial reviews be conducted?
  • Post-termination judicial reviews should be conducted not less frequently than every three months following termination.
  • The date for the initial review should be set at the disposition hearing and included in the order.
26. Within what time frame should the Form 33 be signed?
  • The form 33 is the Adoption Placement Agreement.
  • The time frame depends on whether there is an identified adoptive resource.
  • From the time of the entry of the order, 105 days is the maximum time under regulations to get the Form 33 signed by the adoptive parent.
  •  Best practice is get the Form 33 signed within 90 days.
  • The permission to file for adoption should be given to the adoptive parents the day that the Form 33 is signed.
  • The attorney should have been identified by the time the Form 33 is signed,
  • and the adoptive parents should contact the attorney within two weeks.
  • Immediately upon receipt of the permission to file, the attorney calls the County Director.
  • The County Director should prepare the package within five working days after notification from the attorney.
  • Actually, in a foster/adopt adoption case, there is no reason that the Form 33 could not be issued within 30 days from the time the termination order is filed.
  • For a child who does not have an identified adoptive resource, the only time limits that can be set are those for completion of a child’s life history and the submission of the child’s pictures.
  • The best practice would be to submit pictures at the same time they register the life history.
  • Please note these time frames do not apply to foster and foster/adopt adoptions.
  • Where the child is placed with a new adoptive family, the Agency must supervise the placement, usually for six months, before the release is given.
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27. When should the search for adoptive resources begin?
  •  The search for relatives willing to adopt or take permanent relative custody should be initiated at the very beginning of the case.
  • The initial placement within a foster home should be made taking into account the likelihood of successful reunification,
  • and the willingness of the foster parents to adopt.
  • Recruitment efforts should begin in earnest as soon as the decision is made that termination is a plan,
  • even a concurrent plan.
28. What efforts should be made to identify adoptive resources?
  • County Agencies should contact the State Adoption Exchange,
  • their regional adoption coordinator,
  • other resource development workers, and
  • private adoption agencies under contract with the Office of Adoptions
  • to solicit family assessments for their children.
  • County Agencies should schedule children for video-conference and
  • Wednesday’s Child appearances.
  • County Agencies should make a Tale of 2 States Liaison referral so that a search for families can be made nationwide.
  • All of this should be completed prior to the first judicial review, which again is not later than three months following termination.
  • Once family assessments are received by a county Agency, they should be reviewed and, if at all possible, a family selected within thirty days.
29. What can be done about relatives who surface at the last minute, either just prior to the hearing on the petition to terminate parental rights or after termination, but prior to disposition?
  • The only acceptable practice is to conduct relative searches (including relatives of legal and/or biological fathers) early in the case so as to
  • exhaust all potential relatives long before even the filing of the petition to terminate parental rights.
  • The Court should accept responsibility to ensure that relatives are identified early in the case, and clear, effective policies should be put in place by the Court and the Agency.
  • One option is to require that a complete family tree is developed as part of the First Placement/Best Placement study.
30. Is “best practices” the same as reasonable efforts?
  • It should be kept in mind, although most of these practices have reasonable efforts implications, the Agency does not need to meet these standards in order to be determined that the Agency has made reasonable efforts.
D. Conclusion.
  • The foregoing best practices may be similar to what many courts in Georgia are already doing, but just as likely may be very radical departures from current practices in many of our courts.
  • The Model Courts Project stands ready to help any court or community implement these practices, and also welcomes input and feedback from courts outside the Project.
  • These best practices are a work in progress and will be reviewed by the Model Courts Advisory Committee and its partners in the Model Courts Project once or twice per year for a period of time as the practices are implemented by courts involved in the project.
  • Please provide comments and feedback to aid in the refinement of these best practices.
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  • The Georgia Model Courts Project is a project of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges,
  • operating under the guidance and direction of the Permanency Planning Committee of CJCJ, and
  • is supported by staff and other funding from the Georgia Supreme Court Child Placement Project.
  • The Project also receives technical and other support from the Permanency Planning Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges,
  • and a great deal of assistance from all of its partner agencies,
  • a representative listing of which is shown on the addendum to this Report.]