The Child Advocate
Antavius Weems and his 1,300 clients
Published in 2005 Georgia Rising Stars magazine
on September 28, 2005
Updated on July 14, 2011
Antavius M. Weems is doing his best to fix a broken system.
In the late-1990s, Georgia’s foster care system was under a white-hot national spotlight after a series of heartbreaking failures. Foster children had been abused and neglected, and, in one high-profile case, a 5-year-old boy had been tortured, kept tied to a stair banister and starved to death by his grandmother and aunt after the system placed him in their care. But the foster care system was understaffed, and finding acceptable blood relatives for the kids was time-consuming. As the children grew up in the care of the state, they became “unadoptable.”
“They knew it, too,” says Weems, who is a child advocate attorney for Fulton County Juvenile Court with a caseload of around 1,300 neglected or abused children. “They knew that if they were not adopted by the time they were teenagers there was virtually no chance that they would be adopted.”
The system needed to quickly get the children into a real home with relatives and make sure their guardians had the means to care for them, and so 16 graduate students in social work were brought in as part of a program that Antavius Weems created in 2003, only a month after becoming a child advocate. He and the students made sure the guardians got jobs — mostly at restaurants and other establishments offering low-skilled jobs — and referred them to parenting classes and GED programs if necessary.
Weems was no stranger to the harshness of their lives. Though he had a devoted mother and extended family, he grew up without a father in Carver Homes, one of the roughest housing projects in Atlanta. Despite the harsh environment, Weems’ mother made sure her son and his two younger sisters got college degrees, while she held down a job at Sears. The dilapidated, crime-infested project was demolished before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, as Atlanta launched an urban renewal initiative, but Weems has been dealing with the ghosts of Carver Homes ever since.
“Most of [the cases] we see are young black children who are not wealthy, who grew up in the housing projects,” says Leslie Gresham, a former Clayton County judge who is now, along with Weems, one of four child advocate attorneys for Fulton County. “I don’t know what it’s like to walk past drugs on my way to school. I can empathize with the child and try to put myself in that position mentally, but I do not know it firsthand. … But Antavius has lived with these situations and grew up in the projects.”
“Basically, there is economic despair,” says Weems. “You can look at these parents’ faces and see where they are. These are not bad people. It’s almost as if the system itself has set them up.”
He refers specifically to Georgia’s Welfare-to-Work program, which, beginning in the mid-1990s, gave welfare recipients four years, at most, to find a job and leave the welfare rolls. Some recipients, depending on circumstances, were given less time.
“It’s not that Welfare-to-Work is wrong. What’s wrong is that no one provided these people with training. They just told them to go get a job,” he says. “So they go work at McDonald’s or somewhere like that making $8 an hour, maybe, and no one has told them you can’t support your three kids on $8 an hour. So, how the hell are they going to keep the lights on? The gas on? The phone on? And when they don’t, they’re accused of not taking care of their children.”
Weems learned the impact an advocate can have after he completed his undergraduate degree at Clark Atlanta University. He went to a “law school fair” and was immediately intimidated by the schools’ requirements. The first recruiter whom he spoke with made it clear that Weems didn’t have the right stuff — his grades were average. After a few more similar conversations, he gave up and waited for his friends’ interviews to finish. He was deep in thought over what else he could do with his life when an African-American recruiter from Michigan State University, with whom he had not spoken, came over and asked what was wrong. Weems briefly summarized the situation and the recruiter said, “There’s more than one way to get into law school.”
“He told me that what I should do was go ahead and get my graduate degree,” recalls Weems. “He said that graduate degrees are more impressive. That way I could stay in school, do more research into various law schools, make some contacts and be almost guaranteed to get in.”
Weems took his advice, got his master’s degree in social work with improved grades and was accepted into law school at Michigan State University. Once there, he realized his impoverished upbringing had prepared him for a particular path, and once he graduated from law school he knew exactly where that path led: back home to Atlanta.
In 2001 he began working in the city of Atlanta courts. A fraternity brother, Raines Carter, approached him about a need for more black men to become involved in a court that processed cases involving mostly young black men. Weems found himself prosecuting kids who had violated the city school’s “zero tolerance” guidelines, which allowed teachers to dispose of troublesome students by calling the cops. Increasingly, he saw what he believed to be children abandoned by the educational system.
The day that former Mayor Maynard Jackson — the city’s first black mayor — died, Weems prosecuted a kid who had run afoul of the school’s guidelines. “It was a very emotional day,” remembers Weems. “A lot of people knew Maynard Jackson and were grieving and I asked this young black man if he knew who Maynard Jackson was. He said he did not. So I assigned him a paper about Maynard Jackson and asked the court to require him to earn his GED.”
It was the beginning of a string of unusual and educational sentences — he even began requiring defendants who were 18 or older to register to vote. “[The young defendants] complained about the system, but they clearly did not understand the system or feel any responsibility for it,” says Weems. “They didn’t realize that the most basic of rights was within their grasp and that this right — the right to vote — could change everything.”
Judge Elaine Carlisle eventually stopped Weems’ voter drive, acting out of what she called “an abundance of caution.” Other attorneys had warned him that defendants shouldn’t feel compelled to register to vote, that his instructions were improper. Weems laughs about it now, but the whole experience helped his transition to the position of child advocate attorney for Fulton County, which gave him the outlet he’d been seeking all along: a legitimate way to make a difference.
Soon after shifting over to the county courts, Weems started talking with his fellow child advocate attorneys, Gresham, as well as Melinda Shepherd and Chris Yokum, about recruiting social work students from Clark. The students were organized into teams and sent to find blood relatives for children languishing in foster care. In some cases, Weems says, there is a relative in another county who wants to raise the child, but county lines have, in the past, been roadblocks to the Department of Family and Children Services.
“We just work right around that,” he says. “The students are trained to assess a home situation and interview potential parents, and we put together the cases. Then, in court, I basically say, ‘Your honor, there is an aunt who has a nice, clean, spacious home, a good job and a clean background who loves this child and wants to raise her …’ and the judge makes the decision from there.”
Weems says he is not the only young attorney in the Fulton County courts, a vast warren of offices fittingly located between the State Capitol and the Fulton County Jail, who wants to make a difference.
“There are others who are committed to helping children, but the politics get too deep,” he says. “People get focused on feeding their families and they are afraid to take risks.”
His next crusade? Weems doesn’t think of himself as a crusader, but he is concerned about data made available by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). While he supports easy background checks, he points out that the NCIC makes a record of criminal charges available to potential employers, regardless of whether those charges have held up in court. Even if not convicted, young people who’ve made mistakes and are looking for jobs might find their progress thwarted merely because they were charged with a crime. The concern is part of his larger idea that public servants should use the law to help make the community safer and more healthy, economically and educationally.
“Any prosecutor who has a 100 percent conviction rate with juveniles is selling out the system,” he says. “Because, our first job is to make the community whole. That is what this job is really about.”