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Lawyers for Children Sued

December 18, 2007 permalink

Nateyonna Banks was taken into state care in Atlanta Georgia. In July 2006 she was returned to her mother, Shandrell Banks. Under her mother's care, the child was beaten and died on November 9, 2006. Now a lawsuit on behalf of the child's estate has been launched against the state-appointed lawyers who represented the child. Money collected would have to go to the girl's heir, almost certainly the mother who killed her, so this is not a plea to compensate an innocent party. Of more concern, hurting the lawyers financially will scare future lawyers into opposing all reunifications of their clients with their parents.

In Ontario, the Office of the Children's Lawyer already opposes all reunifications, as projected for Georgia. We have never come across a case in which a children's lawyer addressed the court saying: "Your worship, I respectfully suggest that my client's interest would best be served by remaining in the care of his parents". It can only get worse. Recent legislation mandated public inquiries into cases such as Nateyonna Banks in which a child dies in the care of parents after being returned from CAS care. We can expect one such inquest per year, giving widespread publicity to the dangers of returning children to their parents. The dozens of children dying each year in foster homes will remain out of view of the press and the public.



Suit targets lawyers in tot's death

A 2-year-old Atlanta girl whose death sparked widespread outrage was placed in a dangerous home because her publicly appointed attorneys failed to represent her properly in court hearings, a lawsuit alleges.

Nateyonna Banks died in November 2006 after being placed with her mother, who was charged with beating her to death. The girl's estate filed suit Friday against Fulton County's child advocate attorney office and the lawyers who represented her.

Attorney Don Keenan of the Keenan Law Firm, who filed the suit in Fulton state court, said Fulton's Office of the Child Advocate Attorney failed to fully investigate Nateyonna's mother, Shandrell Banks.

Keenan said Banks had a history of Fulton's Department of Family and Children Services removing her children, had a mental illness and had a drug possession conviction.

The child advocate attorney office is understaffed, underfunded and overworked, Keenan said, citing a University of Georgia study.

"That safety net had a huge hole in it, and Nateyonna fell through and died,'' Keenan said. He compared child advocate attorneys to ''potted plants'' during Juvenile Court proceedings on Nateyonna Banks' placement.

Keenan said he hopes the suit helps repair the legal safety net for children. It seeks unspecified damages to be awarded to Nateyonna Banks' estate, including to her five siblings.

Fulton County and its child advocate office, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Three attorneys who handled Nateyonna's case could not be reached for comment.

Also named as a defendant is a company contracted with DFCS as a case management agency that handled the Banks case. The company, Family Ties Enterprises, did not return a phone call requesting comment on the suit.

Shandrell Banks had given birth to Nateyonna while incarcerated on a cocaine possession charge. She had already had two of her children removed from her care.

Nateyonna's great-aunt, Carolyn Banks, had raised the girl since infancy. She approached the state child welfare agency seeking financial help raising Nateyonna in May 2006.

Fulton County DFCS workers agreed the child should be placed with Carolyn Banks.

But supervisors overruled that decision and recommended placing the child with the mother, which occurred in July 2006.

DFCS Director Mary Dean Harvey later said, ''It was poor decision-making.''

Nateyonna Banks' death caused a shakeup in DFCS.

Keenan said Friday's suit was the first civil litigation in the country naming a governmental child advocate legal department in a suit alleging incompetence.

He cited a Carl Vinson Institute of Government study that found in about half of the cases, Fulton County child advocate attorneys did not review DFCS case documents. In more than 60 percent of cases, child advocate attorneys did not interview at least one family member.

Lawyers in the Fulton County office had an average caseload much higher than recommended, the study said.

Notes from a case management worker reported that two months before Nateyonna died, Shandrell Banks was feeling ''overwhelmed at times'' and ''more and more despair.'' In October, the child had a swollen face and an eye that was closed, the case worker reported.

DFCS is not a defendant because suing the agency is futile, Keenan said, adding that he would rather focus ''on the lawyers that should have done their job.''

"I assume DFCS is not going to do its job,'' he said. "The courts demand — we demand — these kids get effective lawyers. We can't trust DFCS to do their job.''

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution