Capitol Beat: U.S. Senate panel hears tragic stories from Georgia’s foster care system

Capitol Beat: U.S. Senate panel hears tragic stories from Georgia’s foster care system

This article features clients of the Government Accountability Project and was originally published here.

ATLANTA – The mother of a murdered 2-year-old girl and a young woman who was neglected and abused in Georgia’s foster care system described their tragic experiences to a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Wednesday.

The Senate Human Rights Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., launched a bipartisan investigation into the treatment of foster children in the United States eight months ago. The investigation included a review of audits conducted by the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS).

The findings included a previously undisclosed internal audit this year that found DFCS failed in 84% of cases brought to the agency’s attention to address risks and safety concerns.

“What we have learned about what is happening to children in state care and in the care of state agencies across the country is heartbreaking,” Ossoff said. “Instead of safety, too many children have experienced neglect, abuse, apathy and humiliation.”

Rachel Aldridge of Georgia told the subcommittee about the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, after DFCS placed her in the care of her father’s live-in girlfriend against Aldridge’s wishes. She suspected the friend was using methamphetamine and thought she was dangerous.

Brooklyn then died of blunt head trauma and the girlfriend was convicted of murder.

“Brooklyn’s child protection system has failed at every level,” Aldridge said. “Brooklyn would still be alive today if anyone at DFCS had been willing to listen to me, her mother.”

Mon’a Houston of Savannah testified about the five years she spent in foster care, including 18 placements, only two of which were in nursing homes. She said she took too much medication because DFCS caseworkers believed she had a behavioral problem, and she was restrained and isolated three times.

“I felt alone,” she said. “I was so heavily medicated that I felt overtired and sluggish. Walking hurt.”

Two experts told the subcommittee that the failures at DFCS were not the fault of individual caseworkers but rather were systemic.

“We are not giving case managers the tools they need and not listening enough to children and their families,” said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law.

“I have witnessed a system that, day after day, fails to protect the well-being, health and safety of children and instead violates their civil and human rights,” added Emma Hetherington, director of Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation ( CEASE) Clinic, added at the University of Georgia School of Law.

“DFCS’s overarching structure, internal policies and administrative barriers hinder the good work of caseworkers, and when that happens, our clients suffer great harm.”

Ossoff said the subcommittee’s investigation is ongoing.

“It is imperative that this work advances the long-overdue reform needed at both the state and federal levels to protect America’s most vulnerable children,” he said.