Unruly, Truancy, and Runaway Cases in Georgia
The bulk of the cases that go through Georgia Juvenile Courts are either delinquency cases or dependency cases. Delinquency cases are cases in which a child is charged with an act that would be a crime if committed by an adult, and dependency cases are cases involving allegations of child abuse or neglect. However, there exists in Georgia Juvenile Courts somewhat of a hybrid of the two, known as CHINS cases. CHINS stands for “Child In Need Of Services.” You may also hear these cases referred to as “status” offenses (because a person's “status” as a child is what brings them under the court's jurisdiction – an adult cannot be charged with a CHINS/status offense). Because of the complexity of the Georgia Juvenile Code, it is imperative that you retain a Juvenile Lawyer in Georgia.
The Georgia legislature's stated purpose in drafting the CHINS code is to acknowledge that, at times, children can engage in problematic behaviors that do not rise to the level of a criminal offense. The code is designed to give Georgia Juvenile Courts the authority to design a “program of treatment, care, guidance, counseling, structure, supervision, and rehabilitation that [a child] needs to assist him or her in becoming a responsible and productive member of society.” It also seeks to ensure that all agencies charged with implementing such a program and providing services to the child and his/her family actually does so. It also provides a level of accountability for parents, as parents may be ordered to ensure their child's participation in services or to receive services themselves. Parents who fail to do so may be held in contempt of court.
The three significant CHINS offenses are:
- Unruly/Ungovernable – This is defined as a failure to abide by the lawful commands of one's custodian.
- Runaway -- A runaway child is one who has been away from his/her home or place of abode for at least 24 hours, without the consent of his/her parent or guardian and without just cause. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-381.
- Truancy – A child is “truant” when he/she has accrued 10 or more days of unexcused absences from school in the current academic year. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-381.
While, as stated earlier, CHINS cases are not criminal in nature, a child is nonetheless afforded certain rights during CHINS proceedings, and courts are bound by specific procedures. To ensure that the child's rights are protected, you need a Georgia Juvenile Attorney.
Georgia Court Process for Unruly, Truancy, and Runaway Cases
A CHINS case is initiated when a complaint is filed. A complaint is an initial document that sets forth the reasons why the complainant believes the child to be in need of services, such that the child is subject to the Juvenile Court's jurisdiction. A complaint may be filed by “any person” who has knowledge of the facts and has reason to believe the facts are true. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-390. In many cases, complaints for unruly/ungovernable cases are filed by parents or guardians alleging that their child has been disobedient at home. Most runaway complaints are also filed by parents. Most truancy complaints are filed by schools.
When a CHINS case comes before the Juvenile Court, the Juvenile Court is required to ensure that the child is represented by an attorney. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-402. If the child's family does not hire an attorney to represent the child, the Juvenile Court must appoint an attorney. The Juvenile Court may, in addition, appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) to represent the child. While an attorney for the child represents the child's stated wishes, a GAL is charged with informing the court of what is in the child's best interests. It is important to note that, while anything told by the client to his/her own client-directed attorney is subject to attorney-client confidentiality, information given to a GAL is not private and may be repeated to the court.
Once a complaint has been filed in a CHINS case, a petition must then be filed. A petition is the formal charging document in a Georgia Juvenile Court and lays out the charges, the facts supporting the charges. A petition in a CHINS case may be filed by a parent, guardian, legal custodian, law enforcement officer, a guardian ad litem, or a prosecuting attorney. O.C.G.A. § 15-11-420. In most cases, petitions are filed by prosecuting attorneys.
According to O.C.G.A. § 15-11-422, petitions must contain:
- The facts which bring a child before the jurisdiction of the court, with a statement that it is in the best interests of the child and the public that the proceedings be brought,
- The name, date of birth, and residence address of the child alleged to be a child in need of services,
- The name and residence address of the parent, guardian, or legal custodian of the child named in the petition,
- Whether all available and appropriate attempts to encourage voluntary use of community services by such child's family have been exhausted, and
- Whether any of the information required by this subsection is unknown.
Truancy petitions filed by school systems must contain additional information, including whether the school system has attempted to resolve the child's truancy through other means before filing the complaint and whether the child is eligible or currently receiving special needs services.
The Juvenile Court must then hold an adjudicatory hearing. An adjudicatory hearing is where the Juvenile Court hears testimony and looks at evidence to determine whether the child is in need of services. Unlike in a juvenile delinquency case or an adult criminal matter (where proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required), the Juvenile Court must find that sufficient evidence has been presented to find the child in need of services by clear and convincing evidence. The child does have all the due process rights (right to confront witnesses, right to remain silent, etc.) that he or she would have in any other court proceeding.
If the Juvenile Court finds the child in need of services, the Court may then hold a disposition hearing. Often, Georgia Juvenile Courts will hold disposition hearings on the same day and just after the adjudicatory hearing. At this hearing, the Court hears testimony and examines evidence to determine which services are available and appropriate for that particular child.
Many people think of CHINS cases as less important than delinquency cases. Many families also fail to realize what they may be getting themselves into by filing a CHINS complaint themselves. This is a mistake. Juvenile Courts have a whole range of options available to them once a child is found to be in need of services. Some of these options, ranging from counseling to probation, can be invasive and disruptive to families. For this reason, if your child is being charged with a CHINS offense, please call a Georgia Juvenile Court Attorney today. You should always ensure that your child's rights are protected.