Case of First Impression: Georgia Supreme Court rules that 12-year cannot appeal his placement decision -- UPDATED

The case is In the Interest of W.L.H., No. S12G1049 (Mar. 4, 2013) in the Ga. Supreme Court.  The article on which I am relying can be found on The Daily Report, "Ga. high court: Children can't contest rulings on their care."

On the facts, a young man had been cared for by his cousin from the time that he was 17-months old until he was 12-years-old.  His father is deceased and his mother not in the picture.  He stayed with his cousin by authority of a placement from the state of Georgia.  However, after accusations of abuse on the young man surfaced and there was evidence that he had been struck by the cousin, a Georgia court appointed a legal guardian for the minor.  Later, the court made a legal determination that the minor was experiencing deprivation in his home.  The court ordered that the young man be removed from the cousin's care-- first to foster care and then to a group home.

The young man, armed with an attorney, appealed the court's decision, and then appealed the decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals.  When the case reached the Supreme Court, the question was whether the judges would grant the young man "standing" to actually be heard on his case.  Standing is a legal burden that must be overcome before one can bring a case or controversy to court.  Basically, if one is not appropriately situated in his relationship to the facts and harms of the case, a court will not allow that person to bring the matter to the court's attention.  (Of course, standing is much more complicated, but that's the idea).

Organizations like the American Bar Association and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) programs from Georgia and nationally sided with the 12-year old, advocating for the Supreme Court of Georgia to grant standing to him to challenge his placement.  The Attorney General, in his legal capacity of representing the state, argued that the 12-year-old was but a child and therefore must not be able to bring his own case.

A majority of the court agreed that the 12-year-old had no standing:  the 12-year-old was not a proper party to bring a challenge to his placement.  Interestingly, the 12-year-old's cousin agreed that an appeal was unnecessary, because the child was getting care in the group home.  The guardian ad litem (court-appointed person to evaluate what is in the child's best interest) was also against the child's appeal of his placement.

Here's how the Justices voted:

In favor of the state (in the majority against the 12-year-old):

In favor of the 12-year-old (in the minority):
Hunstein, Chief Justice 
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Doris L. Downs (sitting for Justice Blackwell)

Here's a snippet, from the article, of what was contained in the opinions.
"All of the adults who are legally entrusted with the child's best interest do not believe an appeal is necessary," [Justice] Melton wrote. "It would be inappropriate, indeed unwise, to allow a child, especially one under the circumstances of deprivation to override all other decisions regarding his best interests . . . . [A] child, from the moment he or she learns to speak, could mandate an appeal of a trial court's deprivation finding."

[Justice] Hunstein wrote, "Particularly here, where the juvenile court's finding of deprivation meant that W.L.H. was committed to an institution where his freedom was curtailed, there can be no serious contention that he was not a party."

[An advocate from Georgia CASA added,] "The point [of an appeal] is for both sides to be presented in court . . .It's never in the best interest of the child not having a voice[.]"

I'm on the lookout for the full opinion myself.  I'm interested to read more because I'm not certain of where I come out on this one.  The evidence of abuse in this case complicates the ultimate issue that will be applied to cases following this one:  whether a child of 12-years-old is competent to advocate for where he wants to be placed.  After being the classrooms that I have, I am very uneasy about a hard-fast rule that discards the voices of all 12-year-olds because of their age. Some of the fifth and sixth graders that I have met are certainly capable of assessing their current situations.


  • Here are the oral arguments for the case:  from Daily Report.  
  • The child was 12 at the time of the first case, is now 14.

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