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County joins cooperative effort to protect children

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Clayton County joined an alliance of 20 other Georgia counties on Wednesday and kicked off the new Clayton County Drug Endangered Children's Response Team.

The Georgia Alliance for Drug Endangered Children started four years ago in response to fears about a meth epidemic. It aims to get government departments and local organizations working collaboratively to deal with the way drug addictions harm children.

Chuck Fischer, deputy director of the county's Department of County and Children Services, said the county's justice system and social services see abused kids and neglected kids, but sometimes abuse and neglect are really exacerbated addiction problems.

"It's still children in danger," Fischer said, "but we are seeing more complicated issues."

Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said it is estimated that 70 percent of all abuse and neglect cases are "substance-abuse related." Often, he said, the abuse or neglect doesn't even come to the attention of the police, the courts or DFCS, until a substance abuse problem comes into the system and exposes the child abuse.

The alliance is also interested in responding to children who are "drug-endangered" because of their own addictions, and interested in protecting the county's children in every way, Teske said.

"The problems are multi-faceted and that's why it requires a multi-faceted approach," said the juvenile judge.

According to Melva T. Steps, a Georgia Alliance project director leading the kick-off on Wednesday morning, the local alliance allows justice system, law enforcement and social workers to talk about what, currently, is frustrating them in responding to drug-endangered children, and then to work on solutions.

"What are some of the things we're missing?" Steps asked a room of about 20 people. "What are some of the things we already have in place?"

When one person said a program was suffering for lack of staff, Steps said private, faith-based organizations could be brought in and could, maybe, provide volunteers, solving the staffing problem without increasing budgets.

Much of the collaboration already exists, according to Steps, but it can be formalized and then more people can be brought in.

"We have to make sure," she said, "that everyone knows that if you have X, Y, or Z problem, you pick up the phone and call A, B, or C."

Judith Simmons, deputy superintendent of the Clayton County Public Schools, said the collaborative effort is necessary to support children.

"It's that old saying about how it 'takes a village,' that's really what this is," she said. "I'm very pleased. This is what we need to be doing so we can support the whole child, and the whole family."

Fischer said the collaboration is already in place in Clayton County, and a lot of multi-departmental arrangements have been brought together by the juvenile judges. He hoped the Drug Endangered Child Response Team could work with the Georgia Alliance to find funding and grants.

"Maybe we could get more training, more staff. Maybe more money for counseling, for both adults and children," he said.