Photo by Heather Middleton
By Kathy Jefcoats
Justice for juveniles in Clayton County has come a long way since its 1955 inception, when there was a part-time judge and two local women who looked after deprived kids.
Now, there are three full-time judges and an array of agencies tasked with improving the lives of children.
Local officials took the journey a step farther Thursday by breaking the foundation on an innovative Youth Development and Justice Center to be built over the next year. Judge Steven C. Teske praised retiring Chief Judge K. Van Banke for his efforts in getting the project approved.
"All you see here, today, is because of Judge Banke, and I want to make that very clear," said Teske.
The center will be built next to the courthouse that bears the name of Banke's father, the late Harold R. Banke, a longtime, respected local jurist. Judge K. Van Banke, who retires June 30, after more than 22 years, told an anecdote on how juvenile justice was served in 1955 Clayton County, when only about 35,000 people lived here.
"My father saw two youths walking along Old Dixie Highway where I grew up, busting up bottles," said Banke. "He put them in the back of his 1952 Chevy and took them home and told their parents what they were doing. He told the parents to deal with it, and it was dealt with."
About 20 years later, as a young attorney, Banke took the case of a working man who'd lost custody of his child, because he had no babysitter.
"We went to the judge and took a common-sense approach -- get the father child care," he said. "And we dealt with it."
In 1978, the county converted a parking deck into offices that is now Annex 3. Part of those offices house the Clayton County Juvenile Court. The facility was improved again in 1995 with an expansion.
"We now have 270,000 population, and all the resources of the federal and state government," he said. "There are so many funds to draw off from. I would argue that, with the population we have now, we're going in the right direction. This is something I could not even have dreamed of. I didn't think the county could afford it, and now it's a reality. I don't think it can be considered money down the drain."
The $15 million center will take about a year to build, and is being paid for by SPLOST funds approved by Clayton County voters.
After the official ground-breaking ceremony, Teske described the four-story facility, and how it will be used. "The courtrooms are on the third and fourth floors," he said. "That is by design, because it is considered the last resort. We want to do everything we can to keep kids from getting that far."
On the first floor, representatives of all the agencies with a vested interest in children will meet at a round table to discuss recently-detained juveniles, and ways to keep them out of jail, while also keeping the community safe.
"We work under a collaborative effort," said Teske. "Our goal is prevention, not detention."
Clayton County's juvenile program is a national model, from which other jurisdictions base their own systems. "Ours is the only county where juvenile filings are doing down," he said, "where others are going up."