Atlanta Child Welfare System Posts Best Results to Date in Court-Ordered Reform Effort

ATLANTA, GA — The Atlanta child welfare system performed better in the second half of 2008 than ever before in implementing widespread reforms required under a federal court order secured by Children’s Rights, according to a new progress report, keeping abused and neglected children safer in foster care and acting faster to return children who recently entered foster care to the stability of permanent homes through either safe reunification with their families or adoption.

The report (PDF), issued Friday by the independent monitors appointed by the court to track the reforms, also credits the state-run Departments of Family and Children Services (DFCS) of Fulton and DeKalb Counties with improving visitation between parents and children slated for reunification, placing more children in foster care close to their home communities, and ensuring that foster homes are fully licensed and free from overcrowding.

But caseloads edged higher for child welfare workers responsible for both investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect and visiting children in their foster homes to ensure their safety and well-being. And the monitors express concern in the report that the effects of the economic downturn in Georgia — which have already forced the state to institute mandatory furlough days for DFCS workers — may further hinder progress. Budget and service cuts have deepened further since the end of the period covered by the report, which ran from July 1 through December 31, 2008.

Additionally, the agency’s performance remains unsatisfactory on some reform measures critical to children’s well-being that have long been areas of concern — including important health screenings for children in foster care and initial assessments of their treatment needs as they enter foster care.

“There are still some things about the Atlanta child welfare system that must be improved to ensure that the abused and neglected kids who depend on it receive the protection and care they need, but the progress highlighted in today’s report is encouraging,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “DFCS has demonstrated that it is capable of acting decisively to correct persistent problems, even in the face of difficult economic circumstances, and now the agency must keep up its efforts to address the remaining challenges noted by the report and guard against further backsliding.”

Lustbader cited several areas that the report says DFCS must work harder to improve:

  • DFCS must reduce and control rising caseloads for frontline child welfare workers. The court order secured by Children’s Rights caps caseloads at different levels for different kinds of caseworkers to ensure that they can devote ample time to the individual case of each child or family they are assigned. While DFCS had previously reduced caseloads, Friday’s report shows that caseloads for some workers grew again in this monitoring period. Overall, 28 percent of the foster care caseworkers in this monitoring period and 40 percent of the child protective services workers carried caseloads that exceeded the court-ordered limits.
  • DFCS must improve initial assessments and planning for the needs of children entering foster care. The agency is required under the court order to undertake a series of measures during the critical first month after children enter foster care to improve their treatment and ensure the timeliness of their return home or to other living arrangements. But today’s report shows that 20 percent of the children whose cases were reviewed by the monitors did not receive required initial health screenings; 33 percent did not receive initial mental health assessments; half did not receive initial dental check-ups; and nearly 40 percent did not meet as required with teams of social workers and others to plan for their treatment in foster care.
  • DFCS must work harder to maintain connections between brothers and sisters in foster care. Although the agency is placing more siblings who enter foster care together in homes with one another, it is not keeping up with the monthly visits required between siblings who are placed separately. Of the children whose cases were reviewed by the monitors, only 34 percent were allowed to visit with their brothers and sisters every month of the prior year.

Among the highlights of the report illustrating the important progress DFCS has made:

  • Fewer children are suffering further abuse or neglect in Atlanta foster homes. For the first time since early 2007, the percentage of children maltreated in DFCS custody has dropped below the benchmark of 0.57 required by the court order. At 0.51 percent, DFCS’s rate of maltreatment of kids in foster care at the end of 2008 was half of what it was just one year prior.
  • DFCS is placing children in foster care close to their home communities. The agency placed 97 percent of the children whose cases were reviewed by the monitor in close proximity to the locations from which they were removed.
  • DFCS is placing children in approved foster homes, and foster homes are not overcrowded. Ninety-seven percent of children in out-of-home care in the second half of 2008 were placed in fully licensed foster homes — more than ever previously documented. Only eight percent were placed in homes with more than three children, and none were placed in homes with more than six children.

The reform of the Atlanta child welfare system is required by the court-enforceable 2005 settlement of the federal class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue, filed against the state of Georgia in 2002 by Children’s Rights and the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore LLP, on behalf of all children in foster care in Atlanta (approximately 1,900 at present).

Children’s Rights took further legal action in August 2008, asking the court to hold the state in contempt for its ongoing failure to find permanent homes for hundreds of children who had been languishing in foster care for years. Subsequent negotiations between state officials and Children’s Rights averted a contempt trial and produced an aggressive new plan in December 2008 to reduce the backlog of Atlanta foster children awaiting permanent homes. Although DFCS’s efforts on this measure are ongoing, the agency has yet to produce significant results.

Today’s report is the sixth since the settlement of the class action. To read the full text and learn more about Children’s Rights’ efforts to reform the Atlanta child welfare system, please visit www.childrensrights.org/georgia.

Related Press Coverage

Report: Georgia Agencies Improving Child Welfare (AP, June 19, 2009)