Judge Hatchett: More hands on deck needed for foster children

Glenda Hatchett, was comfortable as a corporate attorney who rose through the ranks as a senior attorney at Delta Airlines. She had planned to retire from that company.

Glenda Hatchett, was comfortable as a corporate attorney who rose through the ranks as a senior attorney at Delta Airlines. She had planned to retire from that company. But, the community had different plans for Hatchett – or Judge Hatchett as the nation knows her from her syndicated television court show of the same name – then she realized her “purpose and passion intersected.”

“I was the highest ranking woman of color at (Delta) worldwide. I had two promotions within two years. I wasn’t going anywhere. I always thought that was my career path,” the Atlanta native told the Defender while in town for a roundtable discussion on the need for more volunteers for foster children.

After a woman who had been a juvenile court judge in the Atlanta jurisdiction for more than 20 years died, the community approached Hatchett about filling the void. She then did “yo-yo” prayers. “I was hesitant because in my mind, my life was pretty clear, I had figured out what my path was going to be. I prayed about it: ‘Lord, do you really want me to do it? Lord, you don’t really want me to give up this job?’” said Hatchett.

Becoming a judge was never an aspiration, but she decided to answer the call to make a difference in children’s lives.

A few months after taking the position, she was appointed chief presiding judge of the Fulton County, Georgia Juvenile Court, the first African American chief presiding judge of the state court and the department head of one of the country’s largest juvenile court systems.

She wanted to get a hold of the children who came through her court during their early teens, turn their lives around and hopefully wouldn’t see them in their adult years in the criminal system. “It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. It was so radically different from being a corporate attorney. My court had the jurisdiction over all the children who were committing delinquent acts, but also the children who were battered, bruised and neglected. Not only did I see the 15-year-old paid assassin, but I also saw the child who was left in a dumpster to die, a child who had been beaten to near death by his stepfather,” she said passionately.

Seeing the multitude of children in and out of the courtroom each day, some who were in the foster system, prompted her to implement the Court Appointed Special Advocates organization in her court. The non-profit organization trains volunteers, age 21 and older, to work with foster children. Nationwide, about 800,000 children are in the foster system. On average, foster children spend more than two years in the child welfare system and can be moved as often as 15 times, negatively impacting their education, friendship and sense of belonging, said Jim Clune, marketing and media specialist for Seattle-based CASA.

There are roughly 16,000 children statewide in foster care. In Cook County, there are roughly 6,800. Of that total, nearly 80 percent are African American, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.

The organization’s volunteers – who must give a one-year commitment and give a minimum of 15 hours per month – spend time with the children, attend their court appointments and maintain contact with attorneys representing the children’s interests, among other things.

“So many of our children are coming into the system and the case workers are overwhelmed. CASA provides the extra eyes and ears for the children. They really touch a child. As small as that may seem, it’s huge if you’re a child. The uncertainty about what’s happening to them is put a little at ease when CASA is involved. I refer to them as an anchor in their lives,” said Hatchett, national spokeswoman for the organization.

An average 846 children enter the foster care system each day; in Chicago about 18 children each day enter the system, according to Clune.

There are 70,000 CASA volunteers nationwide, not nearly enough to handle the number of children in the system, Hatchett said, calling for more volunteers, especially African American volunteers, and men to step up and become a CASA volunteer.

She said there may be a huge misconception that being a foster parent is a woman’s job, and when the organization asks for volunteers, many think they’re asked to be foster parents. Not so, she said.

“We need volunteers to take a little time out to spend with a specific child in foster care. We’ve got to get more African Americans involved as volunteers. Our children are disproportionately affected. They represent about 15 percent of the total population, but make up about 35 percent of those in foster care,” said Hatchett. “So many of our boys are in the system. We need more male volunteers.” Hatchett said an effective method to educate the community is going “back to the basics” and using the pulpit.

“A lot of our people are in churches. That’s where a lot of work has been done in our community. If you go back to the Civil Rights Movement, the organization that went on was around the churches and congregations,” she said.

Clune said when CASA is involved, children are less likely to spend time in long-term foster care. Hatchett agreed, stressing how she’s seen firsthand the difference the organization has made in many children’s lives.

“We need more hands on deck,” she said.

As part of her work with the organization, she’s set up a parenting network Web site and One Million Dreams campaign to help keep children out of the criminal system.

“Ask a child what they want to do with their life, have them write it out in bold letters and post on their ceiling. It’ll be the first thing they see when they wake up and the last thing they see when they go to bed. We’re going to be in the business of posting our children’s dreams so we never have to post their bail,” said Hatchett.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender.

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