By KAYLA GOGGIN
ATLANTA (CN) — A class action claims a Georgia state agency charged with protecting vulnerable children and adults is, in reality, a “bureaucratic bulldozer that crushes families.”
In a federal complaint filed in Atlanta on Dec. 15, lead plaintiffs Macy P., a 23-year-old recovering drug addict whose five children were taken from her by the state, and Teresa G., Macy’s mother, claim the Georgia Department of Human Services ignores its responsibility to preserve and reunify families.
Among those named as defendants is Gov. Nathan Deal, who is responsible for the supervision and operation of the department. Governor Deal could not be reached for comment.
According to the complaint, the Georgia Juvenile Code is designed to “preserve and strengthen family relationships, countenancing the removal of a child from his or her home only when state intervention is essential to protect such child and enable him or her to live in security and stability.”
The code, which was revamped and amended in 2013, was hailed as a model for change around the country for its inclusion of language that makes reunification following the removal of a child from the parent’s custody possible, the complaint says.
But the plaintiffs claim the state Department of Human Services has repeatedly exhibited a severe lack of commitment to that goal.
Macy P. and Teresa G. say the agency routinely fails to prevent removal of children from their homes, to conduct a search for relatives to care for children who are removed from their parents’ custody, to comply with requirements for petitions and hearings, and to ensure that caseworkers are appropriately skilled and trained to do their jobs.
All five of Macy P.’s children were removed from her care; the youngest child, Brista, was removed only three days after her birth despite the mother’s participation in drug court and records acknowledging that she had passed four months of drug tests, the complaint says.
Macy P. says state employees were aware of these facts at the time, yet still decided that a need for removal existed.
The Juvenile Code directs the agency to make every effort to place children with relatives and avoid placing them in foster care whenever possible.
At least five relatives of Brista contacted four different agency representatives to volunteer to care for Brista, including Brista’s grandmother, Teresa, the complaint says.
Despite this, two agency employees who fielded some of those calls nevertheless remove Brista from her family and placed her in foster care.
State law also requires that preliminary protective hearings must take place within 72 hours of the removal of a child. However, no preliminary protective hearing ever took place after Brista was removed, the complaint says.
Additionally, the class action claims that caseworkers, judges and state-appointed counsel are often vindictive. “Among other inappropriate attitudes, caseworkers and case supervisors handling cases that intersect with the criminal justice system frequently see their agency as an extension of corrections services and their roles as punishers,” the complaint says.
Macy P. says after she learned the state planned to place three of her children up for adoption, she hired an attorney and pushed to have a reunification hearing.
At that hearing, she says, the agency was represented by Charles Reddick, whom she describes as a misanthrope who once told her, “You did this to yourself.”
Macy P. and Teresa G. also complained about the juvenile court judges people in their situation must face, saying judges, who should serve as a check on the system, have made it a practice to operate as “rubber stamps” of the Department of Human Services’ decisions.
“As a practical matter in many Juvenile Courts, the law is whatever DFCS’s counsel says it is,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages and a determination that the defendants’ actions were malicious or callously indifferent to their protected rights against cruel and unusual punishment and their right to due process.
They are represented by J. Elizabeth Graddy of Atlanta.