Give a voice to abused children

Each year, Fulton County children are the helpless victims of more than 2,000 incidents of abuse and neglect. As the former chief presiding judge of Fulton County’s juvenile court system, I came face to face with the tragic results of this statistic each day.

Too many of these children ultimately fall through the cracks only to end up permanently in the criminal justice system and a drain on social services. According to one study, children who suffer abuse or neglect are 53 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile and 38 percent more likely to be arrested as adults or to become a violent criminal.

As we recognize National Child Abuse Prevention month, it’s more important than ever that our community join together not only to prevent child abuse, but to ensure its victims aren’t forgotten. For many of these children, abuse is only the beginning of their journey. The protection of state care often brings with it constant upheaval and the trauma of legal proceedings no child should have to experience.

In 2009, 16,300 abused and neglected children came through the Georgia foster care system. As difficult budget cuts strain services for these children, the responsibility falls to us — the community at large — to make sure they don’t slip into the same downward spiral that has claimed so many children and so much potential.

Recently, I had the chance to meet a shining example of just how powerful a single individual can be in the life of a child. Now 23, this former foster child entered the foster system with her siblings at age 14 because of abuse and neglect at home. During her time in the system, she passed through roughly 20 foster homes — leaving behind schools, friendships and any feeling of stability with each move. She credits a volunteer advocate appointed by the court with providing the consistent presence and representation she needed to later thrive as an adult.

Today, this inspiring young woman is working toward her master’s degree at Georgia State University and is a vocal advocate for improvements to foster care. She has also kept close ties to Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), the organization that provided the volunteer advocate who helped make her future so bright.

CASA is a national network of trained community volunteers who are appointed by judges to advocate for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. Organizations like this are a perfect example of how regular individuals can help abused children. Research shows that children with caring CASA volunteers by their sides are significantly more likely to find safe, permanent homes with fewer than 10 percent returning to the foster care system.

This week, more than 1,400 of these advocates from around the country will be in Atlanta for the National CASA Conference and to raise awareness for local foster youth with a “Forgotten Children” demonstration in Woodruff Park. On Friday, 500 life-sized child displays will fill the park, symbolizing the average number of abused and neglected Georgia children who entered the foster system each month during 2009. I encourage every member of our community to visit the display to understand the need for volunteer advocates to give these children a voice.

As a community, we must stand up for these children and actively embrace the old African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Only by working together to prevent both the causes and the tragic results of abuse can we truly ensure these children are not forgotten.

Glenda A. Hatchett presides over the nationally syndicated TV show “Judge Hatchett” and is formerly the chief presiding judge of Fulton County’s juvenile court system.