According to a previously undisclosed audit, Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services met risk assessment and safety management obligations only 16% of the time, Sen. Jon Ossoff said as he chaired a meeting of the U.S. Senate Human Rights Subcommittee on Wednesday.
The details came from an ongoing bipartisan investigation into the safety of foster children in Georgia that began in February, Ossoff said.
“This is an investigation into children, the most vulnerable children in our country,” Ossoff said. “Orphans. Children who have been subjected to the most extreme forms of abuse and neglect imaginable. Children who were abandoned. Children who rely on state authorities and the federal policies that oversee those state authorities as their last hope for safety.”
“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,” he added.
Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, said children she has worked with have experienced a range of horrific experiences, including being placed in solitary confinement without therapeutic supervision after attempting suicide handcuffed during an intravaginal ultrasound to confirm pregnancy after trafficking.
She said another child was barred from attending school in a place specifically approved for victims of human trafficking “to protect students and school staff from their promiscuity.”
“Although my clients may not have suffered this abuse and neglect at the hands of DFCS employees, DFCS knew about this treatment and did nothing to stop or remedy it. Instead, they blamed my clients for their fear, anger and victimization,” Hetherington said.
Hetherington said she has no intention of blaming individual case managers and other DFCS employees.
“However, DFCS’s overarching structure, internal policies and administrative hurdles hinder its good work, and when that happens, our clients suffer extreme harm,” she said.
Kylie Winton, communications director for the Georgia Department of Human Services, declined to comment on the hearing.
Georgia mother Rachel Aldridge stopped to wipe away tears as she testified about the 2018 death of her 2-year-old daughter Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s father’s girlfriend, Amanda Coleman, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of the young girl after she died from blunt force trauma to her head.
Aldridge said Brooklyn should never have been in her care and that DFCS ignored her requests and its own policies to keep her there.
“The system that is supposed to protect children has repeatedly failed at every level in Brooklyn, from management to caseworkers,” Aldridge said. “You did not follow guidelines for my child’s safety and violated our rights. Brooklyn’s death can’t be in vain. I am here today to strive for change.”
Ossoff said DFCS should have informed Aldridge that she had the right to appeal her daughter’s placement. He said they did nothing when Aldridge reported that Coleman had been using drugs and Brooklyn had bruises on her leg, and that they didn’t even run a background check on Coleman.
“DFCS had a policy of conducting background checks on people caring for children. “But DFCS didn’t do that background check, did they?” Ossoff asked. “And if they had done a background check, they would have found that Ms. Coleman had a criminal history and that DFACS had a previous case against her for child neglect.”
About 11,000 children in Georgia are in foster care, said Melissa Carter, clinical professor and executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law, and that number shows an increasing trend. These children spend an average of 19 months separated from their families, more than the national average of 17 months.
“Behind these numbers are real, whole people, as you all have recognized,” Carter said. “The data does not give us as accurate an insight into the impact of the system on their lives as the heartbreaking testimonials we heard today. These stories are difficult to understand, but they are not outliers. The child welfare system is complex. There are multiple sources of error.”
Carter said Georgia could do more to give case managers the tools they need and listen more to children and families, but there are also two key systemic conditions that illustrate mismanagement in the system.
The first reason is that Georgia does not reliably measure or monitor child victimization.
“We have lost the measure of success in our primary mission, child safety, because we are not making this decision reliably,” she said. “And without it, we have less confidence in the conclusions about how effective the agency is in intervening with families.”
She said the state should also do more to prevent harm to children, citing federal TANF block grants as an example.
“Georgia could spend the money directly supporting families and preventing children from entering foster care. Instead, Georgia is content to withhold the money from families and only use it to pay when a child is harmed,” she said. “These spending decisions may be in compliance with federal guidelines, but they hinder our ability to transform our child welfare system into one that promotes the healthy development of children through prevention and family strengthening.”
John DeGarmo of Jasper County, founder of the advocacy group Foster Care Institute, said hiring more caseworkers and increasing the effort to retain them could make a big difference.
“Agencies are overworked, overburdened, under-resourced, under-supported and understaffed,” he said. “Often they are unable to provide foster parents with the support they need, so foster parents give up because foster parenting is a very demanding lifestyle.”
DeGarmo also suggested continuing to provide services for a period of time after family reunification.
Ossoff said his investigation is ongoing.
In 2020, Georgia approved a nine-year plan to reduce the state’s high rates of child abuse and neglect, and lawmakers continue to consider changes to foster care and adoption laws since the state’s adoption reform in 2018.
The state Senate’s Adoption and Foster Care Studies Committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 26.
This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.