Since 1899, when America's first juvenile court opened its doors to the lost children of Chicago, two primary assumptions have governed the administration of the juvenile justice system: that it should operate in parens patriae for the "best interests of the child"' and that it should be given flexibility and leeway in doing so. Georgia's juvenile courts, established in 1908, function squarely within that framework: "[a] petition alleging delinquency, deprivation, or unruliness of a child shall not be filed unless the court or a person authorized by the court has determined and endorsed upon the petition that the filing of the petition is in the best interest of the public and the child."
Initially, there was a great deal of excitement about juvenile courts, but by the mid-1950s, children's rights advocates became concerned about problems brought by the flexibility built into juvenile proceedings. When Kent v. United States, Winship, and In re Gault were decided successively by the United States Supreme Court, the juvenile court system became more structured and extended more "adult" due process rights to children. This, like the origination of juvenile courts, brought hope for improved protection of children. ...
Intended or not, juvenile courts operate in little unrestricted fiefdoms. Some, certainly, are overzealous in protecting their charges' constitutional rights. Others, however, burdened by heavy caseloads or driven by cynicism or concern, take liberties with children's rights that would not withstand more careful scrutiny. In a perfect world, of course, parents provide important oversight, but children's uniquely perilous situation makes systematic reform essential. Without the meaningful answerability through conflict-free counsel (or any counsel at all), jury consideration, the media or interested third parties, or meaningful appellate review, Georgia's juvenile courts have strayed from seeking and protecting "the best interests of the child." This Article seeks to explore these issues of accountability and will offer possible solutions to problems that emerge when juvenile courts operate with nearly limitless power in the lives of the children who come before them.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore and Leigh S. Schrope, Hush, Little Baby, Don't Say a Word: How Seeking the "Best Interests of the Child" Fostered a Lack of Accountability in Georgia's Juvenile Courts, 58 Mercer L. Rev. 531 (2007).