ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) – Juvenile judges in Georgia are accusing the state child welfare agency of trying to violate state law, according to testimony in an ongoing federal investigation.
“The law is clear about when we detain children,” said Paulding County Juvenile Judge Carolyn Altman, who along with two others testified Monday about their interactions with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS).
It was the second public hearing of the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee’s investigation into DFCS, led by U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia.
Under oath, Altman detailed a meeting of more than two dozen judges in August in which she claimed that DFCS top leadership asked her to place children in juvenile detention centers while the state scrambled to find foster homes.
“As judges, we do not lock up children, especially children with special needs. [just] because we can’t find a place for them,” Altman said.
Ossoff asked a second witness, Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Nhan-Ai Simms, whether this was legal under Georgia law. She replied that that wasn’t the case.
“If our child welfare system has gotten to the point where we want to extend a child’s time in detention and confinement just because we can’t find a place for them, then something is wrong and it’s not working,” Simms said. “We need change.”
AWARD-WINNING reporting by investigative reporter CIARA CUMMINGS
The witnesses described that state law states that a child may not be detained for punishment, treatment, or for lack of a more appropriate facility.
On Tuesday, DFCS denied the claims and sent a letter to Ossoff:
“Yesterday’s statement on this point lacked critical context and accuracy,” the letter said. “Commissioner Broce did not encourage judges to violate state law, and it has never been the policy of DFCS to punish a child with complex needs through incarceration.”
“You and the participating judges all shared ideas about how to address these challenges together, and the commissioner encouraged participants to participate in legislative efforts to further improve Georgia’s child welfare system,” the letter continued. “To DFCS’s knowledge, yesterday’s witnesses never raised any concerns about the content of this meeting with the Commissioner or the Legislature, despite having the opportunity to do so. Ultimately, the courts and DFCS fight together and must remain focused on productive efforts to improve Georgia’s child welfare system.”
Wenona Belton, who recently retired as a juvenile judge in Fulton County, is confident the federal investigation will improve the system.
“I definitely want to see some policy changes,” said Belton, who also expressed frustration with a system that “doesn’t work” and that “puts the burden on kids, punishes them when they fail, and makes them difficult.” classified”.
Altman reiterated the same concerns, stating that few resources were being provided to families or that the answers given were not long-term solutions.
“An overuse and abuse of the security resource plan.” [is] “A short-term solution, but then they may not be able to fully address the problem,” Altman said, adding that DFCS closes cases administratively without providing essential support to the caregiver.
Simms said case closures happen too early and too often and the DFCS culture “prioritizes metrics over safety.”
Atlanta News First Investigates reached out to DFCS on Monday for comment on the allegations made during the hearing. On Tuesday, the agency provided the subcommittee with a copy of its letter:
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