By LaToya Powell

On May 10, 2018, the Juvenile Justice & Children’s Rights Section presented the inaugural Children’s Champion Award at our annual meeting to commemorate the section’s 20th anniversary. The award honors a member of the section who has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to protecting the rights of children and improving the administration of justice for court-involved youth. In other words, a true Children’s Champion. Recipients of the award also must be contributing members of the section. Deana Fleming, the first Children’s Champion, truly embodies these qualities and more.

Longstanding commitment to the protection of children’s rights

Inaugural Children’s Champion Award Winner Deana Fleming dramatically shaped child welfare law for more than a decade through her work with the Court Improvement Program.

Deana is a dedicated child advocate who has spent nearly two decades protecting the rights of children who are alleged to be abused, neglected, or dependent in both the public and private sectors. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1995, with a B.A. in Anthropology and received her law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 2001. She began her law career in private practice with Brock, Payne & Fleming, P.A. in Durham, NC, focusing on family and juvenile law matters. However, she transitioned to public service in 2003 as an Assistant Public Defender with the Durham County Public Defender’s Office where she represented parents in child welfare proceedings.

Deana is most known for her role as the Associate Counsel for the North Carolina Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program at the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC) from 2004 to 2016. In NC, when a petition alleging abuse or neglect of a child is filed in district court, the law requires the court to appoint a volunteer GAL advocate and an attorney advocate to represent and protect the child’s legal rights and best interests. During her twelve years with the GAL program, Deana provided legal advice, drafted policies, and administered statewide trainings for local GAL offices, attorney advocates, and other court officials. She also supervised the GAL appellate counsel and argued numerous cases before the NC appellate courts, including an important NC Supreme Court case which defined the duties of the GAL program. See In re J.H.K., 365 N.C. 171 (2011).

In October 2016, Deana briefly changed her focus to juvenile justice as an Assistant Legal Counsel with the Office of General Counsel at the NCAOC. In September 2017, she returned to child welfare practice with the office of Holcomb & Stephenson, LLP in Chapel Hill, NC. In her current role, she represents the Orange County Departments of Social Services.

Positive impact on the administration of justice for court-involved youth

A lesser known fact about Deana is that she has dramatically shaped child welfare law for more than a decade through her work with the Court Improvement Program (CIP), a federally funded project to improve court practice in abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings. Each biennial session, CIP recommends proposed legislation to the General Assembly that ultimately becomes law. Throughout her career at the NCAOC, Deana was an active participant of CIP, including serving as co-chair of the CIP Juvenile Code Revisions Subcommittee and as a member of the CIP Training Committee. Deana also was instrumental in drafting the legislation which will extend juvenile court jurisdiction to 16 and 17-year-olds who commit delinquent acts beginning December 1, 2019 (aka “Raise the Age”). Thus, Deana’s work behind the scenes has positively impacted the lives of countless NC children.

Exemplary service to the Juvenile Justice & Children’s Rights Section

Along with her constant focus on children’s issues in her professional work, Deana has been a consistent presence as a member of the Juvenile Justice and Children’s Rights Section Council. She joined the Council in 2009 and has served the chair or co-chair of the Legislative Committee for the past nine years. In this role, Deana actively monitors proposed legislation and informs the Council of bills affecting areas of law relevant to our section, including education, child welfare, and juvenile justice. Through her leadership, the JJ&CR Section has influenced and supported major legislative reforms impacting children’s rights, including Raise the Age. Likewise, the Council has actively opposed legislation, identified by Deana, which could have adversely affected court-involved youth.

In addition to her remarkable career as a child advocate, Deana is a devoted wife and mother of two sons. She is also an amazing person and a great friend to those of us who are fortunate to know her personally. If you haven’t met Deana, hopefully, this post will inspire you to do so. We are proud to call her our Children’s Champion!