Atlanta Significantly Improves Safety of Children in Foster Care, State Officials Must Sustain Progress

ATLANTA, GA — Atlanta’s child welfare system has shown its best performance to date since implementing widespread reforms spurred by the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, according to a new progress report — which notes that more children are safer from abuse and neglect while in foster care than ever before.

The rate of maltreatment of children in Atlanta foster care from July through December 2010 was the lowest since the monitors began tracking DFCS’s progress — a steady decline from the end of 2009, when the rate was nearly three times higher.

The report (PDF), issued today by the independent monitors appointed by the court to track reforms required under the 2005 federal court order, also credits the state’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in Fulton and DeKalb Counties with ensuring children in foster care are placed closer to their home communities and have more opportunities to visit with their birth parents.

“Atlanta has made impressive progress in its treatment of abused and neglected children during 2010, and we are encouraged with the direction that DFCS has taken this reform campaign,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The state has reached a critical point in this ongoing effort, and it must now work hard to not only sustain these critical improvements, but continue to address the areas still lacking.”

According to Lustbader, DFCS must work harder to improve its ability to complete child abuse investigations in a timely manner and ensure children’s service needs are appropriately addressed before they leave foster care. Additionally, the state needs to do a better job ensuring that children move quickly to permanency once they enter foster care — especially when the goal for the child is adoption or a permanent guardianship.

The report notes several highlights illustrating the important progress DFCS has made:

  • Fewer children are suffering abuse or neglect in Atlanta foster homes. For the first time since 2008, the percentage of children maltreated in DFCS custody has dropped below the benchmark of 0.57 required by the court order. At 0.42 percent, DFCS’s rate of maltreatment of kids in foster care at the end of 2010 is nearly three times lower than it was one year ago.
  • DFCS is placing children in foster care close to their home communities. Placing children close to their families and schools is incredibly important to creating a stable environment for children who have already experienced trauma. Atlanta is now placing 99 percent of the children in foster care within their home county or within 50 miles of the homes from which they were removed.
  • More children are being placed with their brothers and sisters and are regularly visiting with their parents. Instead of being ripped apart from each other, brothers and sisters are now placed together 94 percent of the time, according to today’s report. Additionally, the more often children have an opportunity to visit with their parents, the more successful reunification efforts will be. According to the report, DFCS ensured 88 percent of children with a goal of reunification received appropriate visits with their parents while in foster care.
  • DFCS workforce has more manageable caseloads. During the second half of 2010, approximately 98 percent of DFCS caseworkers carried caseloads at or below the maximum required by the settlement agreement.

Despite the many improvements noted in today’s report, the monitors also cited several critical areas DFCS must work harder to improve:

  • DFCS must move children more quickly to permanency. Only 62 percent of children entering care since 2005 have been reunified with their parents or placed permanently with relatives within 12 months of entering foster care; or have been adopted within 24 months. Additionally, when children are legally freed for adoption, adoptions are finalized within a year only 59 percent of the time.
  • DFCS must continue to improve its ability to complete child abuse investigations in a timely manner.The state should be completing 95 percent of child abuse and neglect investigations within 30 days. However, while the state has made notable improvement since the last reporting period, DFCS is only completing 77 percent of child abuse and neglect investigations within that timeframe.
  • DFCS needs to improve planning for the needs of children leaving foster care. While all children in foster care are required to receive a full medical exam prior to exiting the state’s custody, the monitor found that between 25 and 36 percent of children received their required medical exams.

Children’s Rights, along with the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore LLP, filed the reform class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue against the state of Georgia in 2002, on behalf of all children in foster care in Atlanta. In 2005, Children’s Rights and its Atlanta co-counsel reached a court-enforceable settlement agreement with state officials requiring Georgia to make sweeping reforms to the Atlanta foster care system and to achieve specific benchmarks for progress. Today’s six-month progress report is the tenth issued since the Kenny A. case was settled.

The full text of today’s report and all previous monitoring reports, as well as the initial complaint and recent contempt motion that Children’s Rights filed against the state of Georgia, can be found at www.childrensrights.org/georgia.