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Expert Voices

Children in Chains: Advocating for Change in Georgia

Published May 17, 2019

Darlene Lynch is the head of external relations for CVT Georgia

Today, I remember a 13-year-old girl I will call Maly, a girl I met in a Georgia courtroom. Maly was not more than five feet tall and barely even 100 lbs. The day I met her, she was led into the courtroom with her hands in metal handcuffs that slipped over her wrists, her feet in leg irons that rattled as she shuffled to her seat. Her family were refugees from Southeast Asia, living in Clarkston not far from my office at CVT Georgia’s new center. Her troubles began after her drunken father, who had previously abandoned the family, suddenly returned to the home, bringing violence and trauma to Maly, her mother and her siblings. Not long after this, Maly caused a disturbance at her middle school that led to her arrest. Up to this time, Maly had been an A student. This was her first offense. Yet, that day she sat in court bound in chains as if she were a dangerous criminal, before a roomful of family, strangers and the judge who would decide her fate.

In addition to my work at CVT Georgia, I am a court-appointed special advocate (or CASA) for abused and neglected children in Georgia. That means I spend a lot of time in juvenile court, and I see one child after another who, like Maly, suffered some form of cruelty and had to be separated from their families for their own safety.

Today, most states in the nation have abandoned the practice of routinely shackling children in the face of growing evidence that the practice is unnecessary for courtroom security and harmful to children. We know that more than two-thirds of children in the U.S. juvenile justice system have complex histories of trauma, including neglect, abandonment, physical and sexual abuse. We also know that shackling children in a public courtroom causes shame and humiliation, damages their self-perception at a fragile time in their development, and reduces their chances of rehabilitation. Indeed, at CVT, we know all too well that harsh law enforcement practices can re-traumatize those who have already suffered severe trauma from torture or other abuse, and that family separation, in and of itself, is a source of great trauma for children.

Yet in Georgia, hundreds, if not thousands, of children are still automatically shackled in juvenile court, regardless of how young or small they are, or how minor their offense. Only a few judges have rejected the practice and demanded that children be restrained only in cases where there is a substantial risk of danger.

With CVT’s help, I had the chance to advocate for a change. I joined the Georgia Women’s Policy Institute (GWPI), a one-year advocacy training program for women leaders across the metro area who seek to improve the lives of women and girls in Georgia. For me, the program was a unique professional development opportunity to sharpen my advocacy skills and build useful relationships in and around the State Capitol. It was also an opportunity to advance the campaign to end juvenile shackling in Georgia.

Starting last May, my GWPI colleagues and I attended class, heard from experts, and practiced our elevator speeches. We pitched our advocacy ideas before a panel of experts in a “Shark Tank”-like event and were thrilled when the judges chose the shackling issue as a 2019 legislative priority. We formed a small team, including professionals from the nonprofit, business, public health, academic and legal worlds, and we drafted legislation. Over the course of Georgia’s 40-day legislative session from January to April, we recruited sponsors; rallied lawmakers; consulted with judges, lawyers and sheriffs; built partnerships; diffused opposition; and provided testimony. We also secured media coverage, including this powerful two-part series in Atlanta’s main newspaper.

In the end, the bill did not make it over the finish line, but it will be back next year and so will advocates like me. If there’s one thing I learned this year, it is that advocacy takes time and persistence. So, we’ll regroup in January 2020 and continue to speak out on behalf of all the children who are needlessly shackled each year – children like small, frightened Maly from Clarkston – and we will celebrate the day we finally put an end to the senseless practice of children in chains.

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