Judge Gives Kids Fighting Chance
Peggy Walker has been the county's only full-time juvenile judge since 1998.
Deep inside a labyrinth of hallways and security doors at the Douglas County courthouse, there is a wall where three large bulletin boards—filled to the brim with pictures of smiling children and families—hang.
The boards—she says she could fill more—sit outside Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker's office. She says she likes to keep them there to remind her constantly that she is deciding children's futures every day.
As the county's only full-time juvenile judge, Walker is a busy woman. People stop her in the hallway to sign papers as she tells someone else where to find this file or that. She tells a guest she's flying to New Orleans Thursday to teach before the American Bar Association.
Her topic is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and she's pretty darn excited about the whole thing.
Since 1998, Walker has helped shape the lives of thousands of children in Douglas County, and is involved in many local advocacy groups and community organizations. But her influence has reached far beyond the county lines.
Just last year, Walker was elected to the executive committee of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
She's involved on a state level as well. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to the Child Fatality Review panel. The group looks at the deaths of all children in the state and looks for ways to prevent fatalities.
All the accolades and fancy titles are nice. But it's the kid who sends her a card saying they've made it, that really touches her heart.
Born in a coal camp in West Virginia, Walker and her family moved to the Atlanta area when she was eight years old. She first became involved with children while at Georgia College in Milledgeville. Her class needed a project and she approached the faculty at Central State Hospital where emotionally disturbed children were housed.
Her class ended up running a token store where the kids could come get toys and candy. She graduated in 1974 with a degree in political science and a minor in education.
She became a teacher in Clayton County, then Fulton. She earned a masters degree from Georgia State, married and had a son. In 1986, Walker entered Georgia State's first law school class. She was managing editor of the law review.
She went into private practice and moved to Douglas County where she had family. She became a Guardian Ad Litem, representing children in the legal system. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans mostly, she'd go to them, be it at school or at home and "play with them."
After studying all aspects of the case, she'd make a recommendation to a judge. Today, these advocates are volunteers called Court Appointed Special Advocates, (CASA), a group she is heavily involved with.
Today she hears various kinds of cases, but it's mainly abuse and neglect of children. The system tries to work toward unifying families, but sometimes it isn't possible and children have to be taken from their homes.
It's an emotional job.
Walker says she remembers a case with a 10-year-old boy who wanted to go home and she had to tell him that that was never going to happen.
"Everybody in there was crying," Walker said. "It was excruciating."
Walker says the main problem she sees is with substance abuse, more specifically prescription drugs these days.
"They use it to numb their emotional pain," she said.
Another problem is mental illness, children and parents.
"We don't have a mental health system" in Georgia, she said. "It's fragmented and difficult to access."
Walker says she fights limited resources every day. For instance, there are 183 children in foster care in Douglas County. There are only 24 foster homes. Children have to be sent out of the county and that causes problems with visitation. They have to change schools and doctors. It is definitely not ideal.
When she's not at work, Walker says she is big into exercise, walking and running. She also loves to cook—ribs are her specialty.
Divorced, Walker spends a great deal of her time caring for her mother who has Parkinson’s Disease. She also spends time with her three grandchildren.
Donning her judge's robe for a picture, Walker dashes into the bathroom to check her hair.
On most days, she says, she loves her job. On others, I ask myself "why am I not waiting tables?"