More children are living in poverty now than at any other point in the decades-long career of Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker, who says a lack of resources often makes poor children vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

That makes Walker’s work with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges more crucial than ever. Children face even more challenges as investigations have revealed a startling rate of sexual abuse while in custody for status or delinquent acts throughout our nation.

Results from a 2012 Bureau of Justice study revealed a high incidence of sexual abuse in the nation’s juvenile detention centers, with as many as one in three children at the local Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center reporting they have been sexually abused by staff or other youth. Georgia is undertaking major juvenile justice reform to decrease the number of low risk children in detention. Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles has taken steps to remove staff charged with investigating such complaints who have failed to act promptly to protect children.

Walker said the unstable economy can make home an equally dangerous place for some children.

“We are seeing more abuse simply because it’s difficult for a single parent with one or more children to pay rent, maintain a vehicle and pay for adequate child care,” said Walker, who has been the county’s juvenile judge since 1998. “But our job is to recognize who the vulnerable population are and protect them, and to do that we have to understand what makes a child vulnerable to predators. What we are seeing is that parents with children are forced to live with others some of whom are not safe for their children.

“It is the responsibility of adults to protect children from sexual abuse,” she said.

Sexual abuse is one of the many potential dangers to those who come through family and juvenile courts. Having well trained judges who recognize sexual abuse, know what steps are necessary for safety of vulnerable members of a household, and understand how to connect families to services for trauma leads to better outcomes for children and families, Walker said.

Within the court system, training is vital in determining whether abuse and neglect allegations are legitimate or just another power play in a contentious custody battle, for instance. Walker, who recently was sworn in as president-elect of the NCJFCJ, says the organization’s focus in the upcoming year is to secure funding for child abuse and neglect training for juvenile judges, continue vital training for judges, and assure that all children and families have access to timely justice in the juvenile and family courts of our nation.

“It helps tremendously,” said Walker, who spent six years on the board of trustees for the organization before being elected to its executive committee in 2011. “We are gatekeeper for foster care. If we are well trained in what we do, we serve as gatekeeper to assure that only those children who cannot be served in their homes enter into foster care.”

NCJFCJ’s purpose is to learn from research, form and implement the best practices from research for the courtroom, then study outcomes and refine those practices so courts can best serve children and families in crisis. While her work can be heartbreaking, Walker said helping people overcome tremendous odds make her job worthwhile.

“I will not succeed in all cases, but I don’t know which ones will succeed and which ones will fail, so I have to give 100 percent in every case,” she said. “And even if you fail, you sometimes plant seeds that end in some amazing successes. I’ve seen people I didn’t think had a chance of succeeding pull themselves together and make a life for themselves and their families as adults. If you absolutely love children and families, that makes it worth it.”

Early education programs have great potential to address the specific needs of those most likely to wind up in Walker’s court someday. However, getting them into the programs is problematic.

“Georgia is leading the way in early education,” Walker said. “But the children at the greatest degree of risk are not the ones likely to take advantage of the programs. So the question is, how do we get the children at greatest risk in school earlier?”

When Walker takes over as NCJFCJ president next year — her 10th in leadership with the organization — she will have continued opportunity to advocate early and ongoing intervention for at-risk families as well as training for juvenile officials. And she has Douglas County’s blessing to do so.

“I could not do this without the excellent work of my staff, my Associate Judge Michelle Harrison, the Board of Commissioners and Douglas County’s Superior Court Judges, who all support the work I do at the national, state and local level,” Walker said.

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