Do you know a child with asthma? As one of the most prevalent childhood diseases, you probably do. Now consider that this prevalence is slightly lower than the percentage of children affected by abuse and neglect. That statistic hit hard for Michelle and Andy Barclay, donors with The Community Foundation. In 1999, the Barclays created the LW Barton Foundation Fund, named after Andy’s grandparents, to support critical issues in the community like child welfare. Not only did they give financial resources, but they also felt compelled to closely manage this social investment to create change for some of Georgia’s most vulnerable youth.
Ten years ago, Michelle and Andy established the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University Law School. Having worked in the child protection system for a number of years, they saw a real need for research and policy analysis. “This area wasn’t getting the attention it deserved,” says Andy. “Protecting our children should be the number one priority of our state government, but we saw the system was broken and failing the children it needed to care for most.”
Both Michelle, an attorney and director of the Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children, and Andy, a statistician who supports nonprofits through data and research, were in medical careers before focusing full-time on policy and child advocacy issues. One incident in particular set them on this course. “There was a high profile child abuse case that touched us tremendously. It was shameful that the child had to endure the abuse but worse that the system covered it up to conceal incompetence,” says Michelle. “We had the opportunity to invest in something at a significant level and decided to partner with Emory to improve the system.”
While the Barclays have decided to affect change at the systems level, Andy believes civic engagement for donors and other philanthropists can happen at any level. “It’s about finding places to leverage your skill-set to help improve societal problems. What do you do well or what skills have made you successful in your professional or personal lives? Those abilities combined with passion and courage are what can make a difference,” he says.
Over the last decade, the Barton Center has provided child-focused research, training and advocacy for practitioners and policymakers protecting and nurturing Georgia’s children. Students enrolled at Barton work on current legal and policy issues impacting the courts and agencies that handle child abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency. The Barclays have been very active at Barton and have gleaned much from their interaction with the clinic staff.
“Money without professional standards will leave just as many kids at risk. The key is advocating for standards and training that ensure justice and safety for every child,” says Michelle. Since its beginning, Barton has helped reform child welfare through advocacy, media relations, research and learning opportunities. In fact, its fellowship program has helped build the next generation of influential child advocates. The director of the Office of the Child Advocate, the deputy commissioner for the Department of Juvenile Justice and the policy director for Voices for Georgia’s Children were all once Barton Fellows.
Most recently, Michelle led efforts to examine 200 foster care “cold cases” to investigate whether all opportunities had been explored to ensure the most positive outcome for youth. Cases considered cold were more than two years old and ones in which youth were over a certain age, had multiple placements, institutionalized or fit within other predetermined criteria. The two-year project shows that Georgia is missing critical processes and measures in some of its most complicated, often tragic child welfare cases. “Our hope is to extend this project another year and institutionalize it as a way to constantly check and predict cold cases. Setting up this sort of institutional quality assurance work is necessary for effective systemic change,” says Michelle. “In the child protection realm, that’s critically important.”
“Two-thirds of the children who suffer abuse and neglect do not come to the attention of our protection system. We’re a long way from protecting all of our children,” says Andy. “The investment in children is one that pays over a lifetime for society but most importantly for the children in need of protection and rehabilitation. These children, who have seen the worst that life has to offer, deserve the best that we can provide.