News Report: Call for Fulton Family Court Investigation

What do Fulton County families and children need most?

If you ask parents caught in legal conflict, you’ll likely hear the word transparency.

Georgia news media, parents, advocates and legal professionals attended a press conference on April 24th that covered in detail the danger experienced by safe, loving parents and their children in family court cases.

The allegations are serious and a plea was made to Fulton County’s District Attorney Paul Howard to investigate the claims.

The press conference featured Georgia expert William Perry who is known for his news reports on ethics failures in government. Perry, who goes by Georgia Ethics Watchdog in his reports, learned just how dangerous the legal environment is for families, and decided to do something about it. Several tragic stories were shared and family law attorneys weighed in, agreeing that something needs to be done. Atlanta’s Fox5 News aired the story that evening, doing a remarkable job at laying out what is complicated and challenging to explain.

The news report explained that for these parents who are being victimized, nothing is more important to them than their children. Children are reportedly being taken from them without any regard for the law.

Perry addressed needed policy changes and spoke about his challenge to law enforcement and other authorities to investigate cases where good parents are wrongfully accused, torn from their children and set up to fail.

My Advocate Center’s term to describe the problem is profit over protection.

Outcomes make no sense given our laws and the facts in such cases.  The real needs of children are thrown by the wayside. Does it need to be this way?

The image here was taken by a news team at the Fulton County courthouse in recent years, when custody experts were paid to suppress evidence of child abuse that was substantiated by forensic evaluations and law enforcement. The litigation resulted in protection and proper medical treatment being withheld from the child.

Young adults are coming forward now to speak about their experiences such as what this child experienced when outcries for help were ignored and silenced. There is no need to wait in beginning investigations and working to remove danger by closing loopholes in state policies.

When families are exploited there is often a lack of transparency and due process in the management of the litigation, so Perry emphasized the need for parties to be allowed to record their own court proceedings.

Superior Court Rules on Recording Court Hearings

This issue was addressed by Georgia’s Supreme Court and Superior Court judges and includes recommendations from stakeholders in the press, My Advocate Center and other advocacy groups.

The new rule changes take effect in May of 2018, benefitting the public, professionals who are ethical and committed to protecting clients and children, and also benefitting the courts in creating more efficiency and positive outcomes.

Parents, grandparents, professionals and even children are speaking up about experiences and the need to take action. Contact My Advocate Center’s founder Deb Beacham here to report details to My Advocate Center or to ask for assistance.

Investigations and News Reports Matter

Learn more about what is happening across Georgia and how investigations can make all the difference in improving safety, family stability, and the ability for parents and children to recover from trauma.

Contact My Advocate Center to review case studies and data on these issues. Investigators will discover that the problems described here are wide-spread and found nationwide, but with Fulton County’s large population and high rates of domestic violence and child abuse, there is a special need for a concentrated review of cases in this area.

Background material for news reports and investigations can also be found in reports such as this story by an Augusta news station about glaring misconduct by a Guardian ad Litem who manipulated cases based upon whether vulnerable women would comply with his demands, or not.

Where There’s a Will

The Will of a Loving Parent

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

We believe that to be true, but another way to put it, especially if you’re caught in a family conflict or in our court system, is where there’s willpower (and a fat checkbook), there’s a way to avoid accountability and even to harm an innocent party.

In every jurisdiction we’ve studied, multiple cases have surfaced in which innocent parties – especially parents – are being set up to fail.  This happens frequently in the form of false allegations of some form of abuse or fraud, targeting the innocent party to take the blame and the consequences of the party actually breaking the law and doing damage to the children and other parent.  Our mission began with sorting out why this was happening in family law or domestic cases but the same foul play occurs, of course, in other types of cases.

Our priority at My Advocate Center is the children who are caught in these battles and getting dropped through the cracks in our system, regardless of which court or which type of process is being used.

When children are suffering because someone they need is being intentionally and wrongfully targeted for failure, and when a judge, attorneys, guardians and especially DOCTORS just stand by or even participate in this foul play, we should all stop what we are doing and do not pass go until this problem is solved. And that is where we are in Georgia.

To learn more, to offer support, present a useful resource or to report a case, contact us here.

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The Cost to Citizens of Privatizing Probation Services and Custody Matters

Is Privatized Probation another form of Profit Over Protection?

Attorney Jack Long of Augusta feels as strongly about the need to protect the public on this issue as Deb Beacham feels about the need to protect families and children from the highly-paid contractors – guardians ad litem, child custody evaluators, for example – who are setting parents up to fail.

This problem in family court relates to the probation servicing problem in that people are unaware they cannot manage this process, and once targeted, there is no way out. The same ugly challenge exists for parents trying to manage child support demands, even when the facts of the case support their arguments and should clear their debt and exonerate them.

Please read further, noting excerpts such as this one:

“(Governor) Deal has made criminal justice reform a priority, and the task force he formed is expected to release a new report this month on changes recommended to the probation system. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among the proposals will be a requirement that private companies disclose the revenue they take in with their supervision fees, as well as more safeguards in the local court system to prevent the very poor from being jailed because they are unable to pay the fines.

What reforms Georgia is able to take on could be a model for other states that, for better or for worse, are considering expanding their use of private misdemeanor probation systems.

“If we don’t stop it, it’s going to grow throughout the whole country,” Long says. “There’s too much money to be made.”

Mr. Long and Governor Deal, we can say the same thing for the fees being taken in by child custody professionals engaged through our court system, including those charging for “supervision” and “evaluations” meant to protect the “best interest of the children.”

The reality is that good parents – mothers and fathers – are being set up to fail in every way by these professionals because there is zero transparency, and no chance for accountability for their wrongdoing. That may be because there is no “Jack Long” fighting this fight.

Many parents are being coerced, extorted into paying for services they don’t need, while evidence that would exonerate and protect them is being suppressed and ignored by these highly-paid professionals. There is no oversight, and attorneys who are involved are not reporting on the professional misconduct happening before their eyes. Profit over protection?

Just like with misdemeanor fines and supervision, many family court issues are being used as a profit center for these private contractors. Fines upon fines are stacking up, with litigants being denied billing records, custody reports (yes, the ones they are billed for and even jailed over), transcripts and even their case files.

And many of these parents are NOT the ones who have broken the law and “brought this upon themselves” by their actions. This goes for honest parents who are set up to fail in child support matters, because a professional may see an opportunity to profit from falsely accusing someone of not paying what is owed. The use of these false claims and the denial of due process is causing more people to be jailed and subjected to such probation service providers.


News Reports on Sentinel and Privatized Probation:
WFXG FOX54 Augusta – Your News One Hour Earlier

ATLANTA, GA (WFXG) – with credit to investigative reporter Nick Lulli.

The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that a Georgia statute that allows state courts to contract with private probation companies for the supervision of misdemeanor probationers is constitutional.

The 41-page opinion released Monday partially affirms and partially reverses the judgments by Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig of the Augusta Judicial Circuit in the lawsuit brought by 13 misdemeanor probationers against Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, a private probation company.

The state’s high court ruled that state courts and private probation companies are prohibited from lengthening a misdemeanor probationer’s sentence beyond what was originally ordered. However, the ruling says judges are allowed to impose electronic monitoring on probationers.

The plaintiffs challenged the statute as unconstitutional because it allows employees of the private probation companies to act as officers of the court while owing a duty of loyalty to their for-profit employers. They also sued to recover monthly fees collected by Sentinel. They said Sentinel continued to collect fees past the original end dates of their probation periods.

The state Supreme Court ruled that Sentinel had no right to collect monthly fees from the Columbia County plaintiffs because the contract between the company and the courts was never approved by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. The statute says that the “governing authority of the county” must approve a private probation services contract.

In Richmond County, where there was a valid contract between the courts and the private probation company, the high court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiffs have no right to recover fees paid to Sentinel during the original terms of their probation sentences.

The high court said the Richmond Count plaintiffs may have a right to recover fees paid to Sentinel after the expiration of their original sentences, but said those plaintiffs’ cases must be considered separately by the trial court.

The high court didn’t agree with the trial court on fees paid for electronic monitoring. The high court said “only where electronic monitoring was unlawfully imposed by the court on a misdemeanor probationer after the expiration of his or her original sentence would such fees be potentially recoverable.” That will also have to be determined on a case-by-case basis by the trial court.

Copyright 2014 WFXG. All rights reserved.

Photo credit below:

Georgia Citizens Losing to Probation Company

My Advocate Center is following this story and will continue sharing relevant news as it appears. We are holding commentary for now, while reviewing material.


A $2 can of Icehouse beer cost Georgia taxpayers $3,000.

Homeless veteran Tom Barrett stole the beer from a convenience store in April 2012.

“I just wanted a beer, and I’m not saying I’m proud of it, I’m ashamed of it really,” said Barrett.

Barrett was fined $200, but he didn’t have the money to pay the fine all at once. He was ordered onto probation, supervised by Sentinal Offender Services.

But there was a catch: A monitoring “startup fee.” Barrett didn’t have money so he spent two months behind bars.

Taxpayers were stuck with $3,000 to house Barrett in jail.

“You’re looking at an average of $50 per day in the state,” said attorney Jack Long, who is representing Barrett in a civil lawsuit against Sentinel.

Barrett finally got out of jail, when his AA sponsor paid the startup fee. But Barrett still had trouble keeping up with the ongoing probation fees.

“The only income I had was selling my plasma,” said Barrett. He said Sentinel told him he could be thrown in jail again.

“They said, once you get in arrears of $500, you’re going to be locked up,” Barrett told Channel 2 Action News.

Kathleen Hucks, who has epilepsy, was supposed to finish probation in 2008. That’s when she paid off her fees and had a zero balance. She was stunned to find out four years later that there was a warrant for her arrest.

The reason: More probation fees piled on after her probation was supposed to have ended. She spent 20 days in jail, and then she saw a judge.

“Judge Craig looked at me and said, ma’am, you spent 20 days too long. Go home,” Hucks said.

About 80% of misdemeanor probationers are supervised by private, for profit companies.

Emory Professor Michael Owens, who specializes in politics and the penal system, says those companies hold too much influence over the decisions of judges.

“What these private probations do is they lobby. They lobby state legislatures and they also lobby judges,” said Owens.

Gov. Nathan Deal just signed into law a bill that will cap fees private probation companies can charge, but attorney Jack Long says the reforms fall short.

“This problem won’t be fixed until Georgia abolishes private probation,” Long said.

Channel 2 tried to reach Sentinel Offender Services for a comment, but no one from the company called us back.


Kevin Thompson spent five days in a Georgia jail because he couldn’t pay a traffic ticket.

He’s not the only one. More than three decades after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to jail people who were too poor to pay court fines, civil rights activists are accusing local governments in Georgia and elsewhere of doing just that, blaming a rise in cost-saving partnerships between municipal courts and for-profit private probation companies.

Thompson’s case is emblematic of the criticisms against the industry. The 19-year-old was pulled over in July for driving with a suspended license, according to court papers. He was fined $810. But he lives in DeKalb County, where authorities contracted a private probation company to see to it that offenders make good on payments for tickets and misdemeanors punishable by fines, rather than processing the debts in-house.

Typically in systems like DeKalb County’s, if an offender is found guilty and can’t pay his or her fine on the spot, he or she is referred to the private probation company, which will usually establish a payment plan and oversee the person until the fine is paid in full. If the person falls behind on their payments, they become subject to having their probation revoked and in some cases could face jail time.

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For Thompson, the suspended license meant he couldn’t continue his job as a tow-truck operator. Without income, he struggled to pay his fine. He was given 30 days under the supervision of a company called Judicial Correction Services to come up with the money, but Thomspon was​ ​only able to submit $85 – $30 of which the company retained for its own fees. So his probation was withdrawn, he was sentenced to nine days in jail and spent five of them locked up.

“I don’t want anyone to to have to go through a situation where they can’t pay a fine and they have to be afraid to go before a judge because they think they’re going to jail,” Thompson says. “If you can’t pay a fine, they must have something else, other than jail.”

Thompson’s experience ​attracted the attention of the ACLU, which last week filed a lawsuit arguing in part that the Supreme Court’s 1983 Bearden v. Georgia decision was meant to protect poor people from falling into just those types of traps. The group says the private probation system preys upon the poor, who are less likely to have extra money on hand to pay fines in a timely manner and more likely to end up in jail as a result.

According to Thompson’s lawyer, Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, the system failed him in that it did not properly inform him of his rights to an attorney – the company’s probation officer allegedly told him a public defender would cost him $150, when the fee was actually $50 and could be waived entirely if Thompson could prove he could not afford it. Likewise, neither the probation company nor the court put forth any alternatives – such as community service or an extension of the deadline – as required by Bearden v. Georgia.

These failures, Choudhury says, are the result not just of individual shortcomings but of an entire system in which for-profit companies, with a lack of oversight from municipalities that contract them, aim to collect the most money possible from the poor, through a probation program overseen and enforced by officers disincentivized from seeing that indigent people – those determined to be too poor to pay fines – are protected from incarceration.

“DeKalb County and JCS engaged in a top-down debt collection scheme that focused on collecting money from people who were too poor to pay on sentencing at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights” Choudhury, also a staff attorney at American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, says. “Being poor is not a crime, and in this case DeKalb County and JCS created a two-tiered system of justice – one that punishes the poorest of the county more harshly than those of means.”

Public Service or Profit?

Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, says Thompson’s case illustrates the larger problems with the partnerships between local governments and for-profit probation companies. His organization last year issued a scathing report on the practice, which it says has ballooned to more than 1,000 courts across the country.

“The theory behind the business model of private probation companies is they will provide supervision for misdemeanor offenders for courts that can’t or don’t want to pay for their own probation services,” Albin-Lackey says. “The implementations is where things really break down.”

A Georgia audit on its misdemeanor probation system published last year found that very few contracts specify how a probation unit is to determine whether a probationer is potentially indigent. A number of basic oversight measures – how many cases are opened and closed, for instance – are also often left unspecified.

Nevertheless, growing popularity of the system reflects an increasing dependence on court systems to help municipalities balance their books through fines for low-level offenses like traffic tickets and disorderly conduct.

“A lot of courts are really hiring private probation companies because they are looking for a debt collector,” Albin-Lackey says.

Florida was the first state to experiment with private probation companies, but the industry flourished in Georgia – where about 80 percent of misdemeanor probation is run by for-profit companies – after the state cut its services to handle misdemeanor probation in 1991, shifting the responsibility to county and local governments.

[MORE: Break the Prison to Poverty Pipeline]

Now, at least 13 states allow localities to outsource the collection of misdemeanor fines to for-profit probation agencies, Choudhury says. The practice is particularly robust in the South – in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi – but has spread as far as Montana, Washington and Utah. Typically, the private companies – which include big conglomerates like JCS and Sentinel Offender Services, but also many small companies – give local governments a deal they can’t refuse: an offer to collect over time the fines offenders can’t pay on the day of sentencing without any charge to the municipality.

“From [the government’s] perspective, they think they’re getting something for nothing,” Albin-Lackey says.

What the probation companies get is the ability to collect additional fees for their supervision services directly from the offenders. The for-profit institutions are allowed to impose additional administrative fees for as long as it takes offenders to pay fines, meaning that people may ultimately pay thousands of dollars for tickets that were initially just a fraction of that amount.

While local contracts often spell out exactly how much a probation company can charge for certain services – like administrative fees, but also for ankle monitors or drug testing – those numbers are often arbitrary and vary across districts. Companies are known to hike those fees without notice or approval.

The industry is extremely opaque, and Georgia is an exception in that it has a regulatory scheme at all. The state requires probation companies to report the money sent back to the courts – nearly $100 million in 2012, according to the Human Rights Watch report. The companies do not, however, have to report how much money they are recouping off additional fines and fees. By reverse-engineering a specific fee that the companies were required to disclose, Human Rights Watch roughly estimated that the for-profit probation industry in Georgia netted at least $40 million off the extra fees. In other states, that number remains entirely a mystery.

“A lot of courts have no idea how much money their probation companies are extracting for themselves from these misdemeanor offenders,” Albin-Lackey says.

Under Scrutiny

Thompson’s is not the first lawsuit that alleges wrongdoing on the part of a private probation company and the local governments that employ them.

”It seems like a lot of attorneys are starting to see this as an area to bring suits,” Albin-Lackey says.

Jack Long, a Georgia attorney, has represented a number of clients claiming abuse by the private probation system. One case of his, on behalf of 13 plaintiffs, made it to the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of private probation collecting services but limited their ability to extend the sentences of the offender.

“[Municipalities] are giving a private company the ability to tax their citizens in these fees that are completely unregulated,” Long says. “Nobody complains because the people who are getting sucked into this are on the low socioeconomic end of society.”

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When complaints are made, the response is mixed. A county judge in Alabama shut the entire private probation system in Harpersville, calling it a “debtors prison” and a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” When contacted about the lawsuit, DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said the county does not comment on pending litigation. Judicial Correction Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Another lawsuit in Alabama – also against Judicial Correction Services – is ongoing.

Georgia’s DeKalb County, where Thompson’s suit is filed, is considered to be one of the most notorious private probation systems in the country. Human Rights Watch estimated that JCS collects $1 million in annual revenues there, making the the system, it is believed, one of the country’s most lucrative. In one 2013 episode recorded in the Human Rights Watch report, 600 probationers were summoned with little explanation to the recorder’s court, where a JCS employee confirmed verbally for a judge, without presenting proof, that each of the probationers had unpaid fines for which a warrant had been issued. Those who could not pay their fees entirely were told they faced arrest – prompting chaos in the courtroom – and some 60 people ultimately ended up in jail.

When contacted about the lawsuit, DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said the county does not comment on pending litigation. Judicial Correction Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Future of Private Probation

Regardless of the conclusion of Thompson’s lawsuit, the debate over the role of private probation companies in Georgia is likely to continue.

“One advantage is they can service rural areas more financially efficiently than a governmental probation unit could,” explains Dale Allen, chief probation officer at the publicly run Athens-Clarke County Office of Probation Services, pointing to the start-up, personnel, contracting and other costs that a smaller municipality would struggle to bear. Allen worked for private probation companies before his current role in the government unit, which reports quarterly numbers – including the fees it charges, the cases it opens and closes, and its use of alternative methods.

“Transparency overall is the biggest issue in the state of Georgia. I think the perception – right or wrong – is that private probation is not transparent,” Allen says.

The concern over transparency contributed to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoing a bill last year that would have allowed private probation companies to be even more secretive.

“I favor more transparency over private probation services,” the Augusta Chronicle quoted him as saying, and he noted that the language appeared to be a preemptive response to the lawsuits against the industry. His veto came not long after the state audit of the system illuminated its lack of oversight.

Deal has made criminal justice reform a priority, and the task force he formed is expected to release a new report this month on changes recommended to the probation system. As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among the proposals will be a requirement that private companies disclose the revenue they take in with their supervision fees, as well as more safeguards in the local court system to prevent the very poor from being jailed because they are unable to pay the fines.

What reforms Georgia is able to take on could be a model for other states that, for better or for worse, are considering expanding their use of private misdemeanor probation systems.

“If we don’t stop it, it’s going to grow throughout the whole country,” Long says. “There’s too much money to be made.”

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