Five years ago, as a ninth grader, China Henson was out of control. She constantly skipped school and ran away 10 times from her Dalton, Ga., home. Finally she was sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton, which lies 80 miles north of Atlanta. She was not prepared for what she encountered. As many as five inmates shared the 8-by-10-foot cells, sleeping on mattresses arrayed on the floor around an open toilet. "There was violence all the time and hardly any classes," says Henson, 18. "I'm not saying I didn't need to be there. I screwed up. But it was bad."

Precisely how bad had come as a shock to Connie Blaylock. Now a judge in Dalton's juvenile court, she was an attorney representing troubled youths there in 1994, when she first heard her clients tell horror stories about RYDC—not just about crowding, but involving suicide attempts and sexual assaults by inmates. Appalled, Blaylock, 42, joined with Whitfield County Commissioner Debby Peppers and a group of 10 other Dalton residents to sue the state to reform the center. To be sure, juvenile delinquents aren't on the A-list of chic causes, especially in conservative northwest Georgia. "There's a whole antikid, let's-crack-down thing," says Peppers, 47. "What matters is that these kids were being mistreated."

Not surprisingly, the state disagreed, insisting that the complaints were exaggerated. "There were efforts to address what were perceived as legitimate concerns long before that suit was ever filed," says Daryl Robinson, a spokesman for the Georgia attorney general's office. But last December, after a three-year legal war, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy pressed the state to accept a settlement under which it would make sweeping improvements at RYDC and hailed the plaintiffs for bringing to light "issues that should never have existed." Then, in August, the American Bar Association gave a juvenile-justice award to the Dalton group and its husband-wife legal team, Robert Cullen and Martha Miller, "for exposing deplorable conditions."

The seeds for the grassroots movement were sown in 1992, when Peppers, a graduate of the University of Georgia law school, won county office. A married mother of three daughters, she had long been concerned with child welfare. "After the election, I realized older people have AARP and animals have the Humane Society, but kids don't have an advocacy group," says Peppers. "That's why we started Voice of the Children, a local group of about a dozen citizens." One of them was Blaylock, a fellow Dalton native and Georgia law grad. The group had been focusing on custody issues until Blaylock's juvenile clients began unburdening themselves about RYDC. She is haunted by her recollection of one of them, a shoplifter who had threatened suicide. "The only way we could protect him from himself was to send him to RYDC," says Blaylock, who is married and childless. "I only learned much later that he'd been repeatedly assaulted and molested there. It broke my heart."

When Voice members tried to inspect RYDC, they were turned away by officials citing confidentiality issues. "Well, we'll just have to sue them," said Peppers. The group's legal expenses reached $100,000, "but nobody blinked," she says. "The feeling was, we're in this until the end." One of five co-plaintiffs who had been sent to RYDC was China Henson, who is now in beauty school. "When they approached me about being part of the suit, I was scared," she says. "I usually don't stand up to people. But I'm glad I did it. Things are better there now."

In fact, conditions at RYDC have greatly improved. "The resolution of this lawsuit has been very positive," says Orlando Martinez, who became Georgia's commissioner of juvenile justice this year. The population has been reduced, and psychological counseling has been made routine. The facility has added a mobile classroom and volleyball and basketball courts, and the Girl Scouts are building a greenhouse. "We don't want to turn this into a summer camp, but we want to get them on the right path," says Blaylock, a judge since 1997. "Now they have a better chance."

Richard Jerome
Gail Cameron Wescott in Dalton

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  • Gail Cameron Wescott.