Metro Atlanta Backslides on Protecting Kids in Foster Care

New Report Shows Higher Rate of Maltreatment, Poorer Safety Monitoring

(New York) — As Georgia experiences major changes in its child welfare leadership, new data shows that metropolitan Atlanta’s effort to protect abused and neglected children in foster care has suffered. According to the latest report from federal court monitors, the performance of the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) “declined on a number of issues related to the safety of children in the State’s care.”

The report, which covers the second half of 2012, is the 14th to be released by the independent monitors, who have been tracking child welfare reform in metro Atlanta since national advocacy group Children’s Rights and its co-counsel, Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore LLP in Atlanta, won a federal court order requiring sweeping changes in DeKalb and Fulton Counties.

“The backslide on safety issues threatens to undermine a reform effort that had shown slow but steady progress over the past several years,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “We look forward to meeting the new leadership and working to remedy this situation. With effective collaboration, we can get kids the protections they need without involving the court.”

On July 1, 2013, Keith Horton replaced Clyde Reese as Commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees DFCS; Sharon Hill subsequently replaced Ron Scroggy as state DFCS Commissioner on Aug. 1. At the county level, Fulton and DeKalb await the appointment of a new Regional Director. The new team will be charged with advancing the court-ordered reforms; most recently, the state met 14 of the 30 benchmarks that the monitors reviewed. Thirteen of them have been reached for at least five consecutive periods.

The report revealed an increase in the rate of children who were subject to maltreatment in foster care; this came after two monitoring periods in which the state came extremely close to holding such incidents to the required level. The monitors also noted several other safety concerns:

* The state failed to meet requirements for timely initiation and completion of maltreatment investigations for children in foster care;

* Nearly a quarter of Fulton and DeKalb’s Child Protective Services (CPS) investigators carried excessive caseloads, sometimes more than double that permitted by court order;

* CPS investigators failed in some cases to undertake complete histories when investigating foster homes. While the state had previously been in compliance with this measure 91 percent of the time, that figure fell to 76 percent;

* Several foster homes were found to be caring for children in DFCS custody despite having confirmed histories of maltreatment.

The monitors also revealed declines in other areas. The state posted its worst performance to date in keeping siblings in the same foster home, doing so only 66 percent of the time–a severe drop from the 81 percent placed together during the previous monitoring period. Also, the monitors found that the educational achievement of youth leaving foster care has worsened, with only 40 percent at age 18 or older attaining a high school diploma or GED,compared to 49 percent and 58 percent achievement the last two times the monitors reported on this issue.

The independent monitors did note improvements. The state turned in its “best-ever performance” in several areas related to judicial proceedings and the legal process, including timely case plan reviews completed by the juvenile court or juvenile review panel. In other areas, frontline workers completed more than 98 percent of the required visits with children, and children who had the goal of reuniting with their families met with those family members as required an impressive 95 percent of the time.

“To be sure, there have been important improvements,” noted Lustbader. “The state also should be commended for sustaining progress in key areas. There is an opportunity for the new leadership to better protect kids and put metro Atlanta on the track toward becoming a model for other child welfare agencies.”

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-area foster care systems and to achieve specific benchmarks for progress. Today’s six-month progress report is the latest issued since the Kenny A. case was settled.