Gwinnett commission votes to reorganize juvenile court

Gwinnett juvenile court administrator Michelle Vereen will head the new county Department of Child Advocacy and Juvenile Services.

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Gwinnett juvenile court administrator Michelle Vereen will head the new county Department of Child Advocacy and Juvenile Services.

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to reorganize the county’s juvenile court and establish a new Department of Child Advocacy and Juvenile Services, removing attorneys for children, court-appointed special advocates and probation officers from the supervision of the judges to whom they make recommendations.

The attorneys for children — known as guardians ad litem — probation officers and CASA volunteers are tasked with independently investigating children’s cases and making recommendations to judges. But the judges control those employees’ pay and employment status, creating a conflict of interest for employees who fear that the judges might not like their recommendations.

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The juvenile court has three judges, who supervise a staff including 17 probation officers and 13 guardians ad litem. As of May 28, those employees will work for the new department, which will be an arm of county government rather than the courts.

Michelle Vereen, the current juvenile court administrator, will head the department. She will report to County Administrator Glenn Stephens.

Vereen was an engineer for 10 years before she went to law school and did indigent defense work for juveniles. She was a guardian ad litem before she became juvenile court administrator.

“She’s an amazing lady,” Stephens told the commission Tuesday. “She really has a unique opportunity to shape a brand new department.”

The new department will be able to apply for grant funding that is not available to the judicial system, Stephens said. It will operate out of the courthouse annex in Lawrenceville.

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Gwinnett is the only county in Georgia where attorneys for children are employed by the juvenile court. Some other states have legislation establishing that the supervision of guardians ad litem by judges is a conflict of interest.

The reorganization is expected to cost about $263,000 due to salary changes for several affected employees.