Georgia Disability History Symposium 2017: The Urgency of the Moment

October 5, 2017

I am thrilled to be a part of this event, which is free to attend. You can register online here and download a copy of the flyer as a pdf here.

2017 Disability Symposium-page-001


For Dottie

May 8, 2017

My dear friend and teacher Dottie Adams passed away on December 27, 2016 after a hard fought battle with cancer. I wrote this piece for the Celebration of Life we organized in Macon, GA May 6, 2017.

You can read more about Dottie here and here.

For Dottie

By: Caitlin Childs

Prepared for Dottie’s Celebration of Life, May 6, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church, Macon, GA

Preparing my thoughts for today’s gathering was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I am not often at a loss for words, especially when it comes to the people I love and admire, but words truly feel inadequate in conveying all that Dottie meant to me and all the ways that I am who I am today because of the things she taught me. But I know I am in good company here, as I have a feeling a lot of you relate to that sentiment.

I first met Dottie in 2009 when I was hired at Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) to start a statewide community organizing program to bring people with and without disabilities together to work for social change and build relationships, friendships and opportunities for all people to contribute to our communities across Georgia. I had a background in community organizing but was basically brand new to the developmental disability system. My background is very non-traditional compared to many in our field and I was pretty intimidated and felt like a fish out of water in those early days.

Dottie bent over backwards to include me and welcome me to the staff from day one. One of my first memories of Dottie is that she contacted me twice after I had accepted the position but before I started. Once she called to ask if there were certain office supplies I would like to have on my first day and then the second time she called to profusely apologize that she would not be in the office to welcome me on my first day because she had found out she needed to have surgery – I didn’t know at the time that she had cancer but it did strike me as a little odd that she was apologizing for having to miss my first day to have surgery. And even then, Dottie still managed to welcome me on day one with the welcome sign she made for me and hung on my office door. I realized quickly how seriously Dottie took hospitality and making people feel wanted, welcomed and included.

She had a hell of a work ethic and her commitment to everything she did was undeniable. No task was beneath her and she showed up and said yes to just about anything that needed to be done. Though I was barely 26 and in great health when I started at GCDD, I was sometimes exhausted just listening to Dottie tell me what she had on her calendar each week! It was not unusual for her to be in the north Georgia Mountains in the morning, coastal Georgia in the afternoon and back home in Marietta to sleep for a few hours before getting up in the morning and working another full day. And this was while she was sick. I quickly understood that to Dottie, work was not just work. It was who she was and how she lived on or off the clock.

Dottie gave me a complete crash course in the technicalities on how to write contracts and navigate the administrative work at GCDD. We worked a few long days and late nights alongside Pat Nobbie as we applied for (and got!) a large Family Support grant from the feds, something that intimidated the hell out of me. I never would have pulled it off without her calm and steady guidance. Dottie was a planning and logistics genius. She could quickly break down projects or tasks that seemed massively complex and overwhelming to me and come up with a simple and often painfully obvious solution in minutes.

Dottie guided my early constituent calls from folks looking for resources for themselves and their families. She was a walking encyclopedia and telephone book. She clearly and as simply as possible explained the developmental disability waivers and the Medicaid system without ever getting frustrated that it took me quite a few repeated explanations before I began to kind of “get it”. Dottie taught me about the history of person centered work and family support in Georgia. She told me stories of the people and families she had met and supported over the years and took me to meet many of them. She painted a beautiful picture of what could be possible if we dreamed bigger and did our jobs well. She also gave me reality checks and wake-up calls of what happens when we don’t. I learned the system through Dottie but I also learned about how to creatively maneuver that system to support people with disabilities and their families in the ways they truly need and want to be supported. She had an incredible amount of integrity, never made excuses, and always did what it took to get the job done with heart.

Dottie never forgot a birthday and in those first few years I was at GCDD, she baked birthday cakes for every single staff member and brought edible arrangements of fruit in for me, a vegan. Then there was the year that Dottie made personalized quilts for every single member of the staff, even our two interns. She made what turned into 2 quilts documenting the first 7 community sites I supported at GCDD. I have never received such a thoughtful and deeply meaningful gift.

Dottie was a strong and often quiet presence but when she did speak, I quickly learned to shut up, listen and listen well. Our relationship helped to teach me the importance of quiet leaders and not to doubt the power and wisdom that they hold. In fact, I now pay extra attention and make sure to look for the quiet brilliance in the rooms I find myself in.

She was a patient teacher, never patronizing and always clear and direct and kind. She firmly but gently nudged me back on track when I strayed. I am not always as kind and patient as I aspire to be but Dottie loved me anyway and reminded me to go back to kindness when I got overwhelmed or frustrated. She also taught me to pick my battles but that it was always important to fight like hell when it counted.

But beyond being an awesome co-worker and role model, Dottie became a trusted teacher and mentor and above all of that, a loyal and steady friend. She was non-judgmental, always willing to make time for me and to listen. I opened up to her about things I was very private about at work and I felt like she truly saw me for all of me. She supported and nurtured me through break-ups, my brother’s incarceration and multiple major losses and challenges in my life. She was there as I realized I needed to take better care of myself and stood beside me with her gentle and consistent encouragement as I started to figure out how to do that.

When I left GCDD last year to set out on my own, it was not easy or painless, but once again, Dottie showed up for me during this bittersweet and tumultuous transition. On my last day in the office, she went out of her way to celebrate me, my work and my contributions to the organization. She always wanted the people in her life to feel valued, appreciated and honored. And she consistently took any opportunity she could to celebrate us. Dottie supported me in multiple ways during that period. I am not sure how I would have made it through if I hadn’t had her supporting me and reminding me to show up, do my best and to always lead with my heart and my integrity.

A couple years ago an article called What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone by Heather Plett began to make the rounds on Facebook. Before I even read the article, I thought of Dottie. In the article, Heather wrote:

“(Making space) means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control.”

Dottie continued to show up and make space for me and for all the other folks she loved, even as she herself was so ill. She fought hard for so many of us in her friendships, in her work, in her quest to stay here to keep doing what she was born to do. And thank god for that.

I cannot begin to count the number of times since December that I have wanted to pick up the phone to call or drop by for a visit with Dottie. Or the times someone has asked me for advice or resources and I knew that Dottie would know the answer. I think of her often as I struggle and I celebrate and take new risks and dream bigger dreams.  I want do my best to grow into and pay forward all I was lucky enough to learn from her. I want to make her proud. It brings me comfort to know that even though she is gone, she will always be here in all of us whose lives she touched and who were lucky enough to learn from her, love her and be loved by her. What an incredible gift she left behind.

Testimony on SB 185: The Standard of Proof for Intellectual Disability in GA Death Penalty Cases

March 1, 2017

Caitlin Childs Testimony

Georgia Senate Judiciary Sub-Committee B

March 1, 2017

Good afternoon, Senators. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak to you today in support of Senate Bill 185.

My name is Caitlin Childs. I am the Legislative Consultant and Lobbyist for the Proof to A Preponderance of the Evidence Coalition. This Coalition is made up of a diverse group of stakeholders including Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, Georgia Catholics Against the Death Penalty, as well as criminal defense lawyers, disability professionals and people with disabilities and their family members. Representatives from all of these stakeholder groups are present with us today.

Since 2006, I have worked with people who have intellectual disability, a condition formerly known as mental retardation. Seven of those years were as a staff member at the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, a federally funded state agency.

Intellectual disability, which is still referred to in Georgia code as mental retardation, originates before the age of 18 and is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior, including everyday social and practical skills. In making a determination that a person is intellectually disabled, clinicinans rely on a number of sources for information including school records, IQ tests and observations of the individual’s behavior in a variety of settings and contexts over time. There is no blood test or universal screening tool that can be used to make this diagnosis.

It was during my time at the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities that I first learned about intellectual disability in the context of the death penalty. I learned that in 1986, Georgia executed Jerome Bowden, a man with intellectual disability. His execution caused such a tremendous public outcry that in 1988 Georgia became the very first state to pass a law to voluntarily ban the execution of people with intellectual disability.

It was 14 years later, in 2002, that the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in Atkins v. Virginia, ruling that the execution of individuals with intellectual disability was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In Atkins, the Supreme Court did not differentiate those with intellectual disability who are higher functioning from those who are lower functioning, but instead ruled that states have a right to convict and punish those with intellectual disability; however they cannot execute them, regardless of their intellectual disability. This bears repeating. Atkins does not prevent punishing someone with intellectual disability. When we are discussing whether to apply the death penalty it is because someone has been murdered. When a person with intellectual disability is convicted of murder in Georgia, Life in Prison remains a sentencing option.

I am proud that the state I love, grew up in, and still proudly call home set the example for the rest of the country and triggered the legislative advocacy nationwide that made the Atkins decision possible.

Despite being the first state to ban the execution of people with intellectual disability, Georgia is the only state in the country that places the most difficult standard of proof on death penalty defendants: they must prove their intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” – a nearly impossible legal standard to meet given the nature of how an intellectual disability diagnosis is made, deeply-ingrained stereotypes about what intellectual disability is, and misunderstandings about what people with intellectual disability are capable of doing in their daily lives. This is why Georgia continues to sentence to death and execute people with intellectual disability despite the Atkins prohibition.

In 2015, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man that every expert – including the State’s experts – ultimately agreed had an intellectual disability. Warren Hill’s execution exposes the urgent need to change the “beyond a reasonable doubt” legal standard to a “preponderance of the evidence.” The preponderance standard would give people a fighting chance of proving their intellectual disability to a jury. A preponderance of the evidence is the standard of proof for intellectual disability currently used in 22 other jurisdictions, including most of our surrounding states. Every single jurisdiction that has revisited the standard of proof in light of the Atkins decision has changed their standard of proof to a preponderance of the evidence.

As Georgia citizens, it is our responsibility to come together to protect our most vulnerable citizens and ensure that our policies are in line with the constitution and Supreme Court rulings. In this context, that means that a defendant with an intellectual disability convicted of capital murder would serve a sentence of life imprisonment rather than face an unconstitutional execution. Let us look to our legacy of being the first state to come out against this travesty of justice back in 1988 and get back on the right side of history today.

Thank you again for your time. I am available to answer any questions you may have.