New Report Shows Atlanta Backsliding on Child Welfare Reforms, Threatening Abused and Neglected Kids’ Safety

ATLANTA, GA — Children in the metropolitan Atlanta child welfare system are now suffering abuse and neglect in their foster homes at a rate three times the national standard, says a new report on progress toward implementing widespread child welfare reforms — and Children’s Rights, the national advocacy organization that spurred the reform effort, says state officials are in violation of the 2005 federal court order mandating the improvements.

The report (PDF), covering the first six months of 2009, was issued by the independent monitors appointed by the court to track reforms required under the settlement of a class action brought by Children’s Rights and Atlanta co-counsel on behalf of several thousand abused and neglected kids who depend on the state-run Atlanta child welfare system for protection and care.

Six months after the monitors lauded the lowest rate of abuse of foster children while in state custody since the court-ordered reforms began in 2005, that statistic has skyrocketed to 1.06 percent — three times the national standard of 0.32 percent — and “represents the highest . . . rate measured thus far,” according to the report.

The report notes serious systemic deficiencies that may be contributing to the spike, including relaxed monitoring and enforcement of private agencies contracted by the state to provide foster homes and other living arrangements for children in foster care. The state’s Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) consistently fails to make unannounced visits to foster homes managed by private agencies, the report says, and only does so when an agency’s contract has been suspended or is under corrective action plan.

“We are extremely concerned that children in the Atlanta foster care system are simply not safe, and that DFCS is not doing enough to provide the necessary safety net for the vulnerable youth whose lives and well-being depend on it,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “If DFCS fails to address this problem quickly, we are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to protect these kids from further harm.”

Due to the lack of progress in these critical areas, Children’s Rights formally asserted in a letter delivered last week that state officials responsible for DFCS are violating the 2005 court order. Children’s Rights, state DFCS officials, and the independent monitors are scheduled to discuss the state’s violation of the court order on Monday to attempt to resolve these issues without the need for additional court action.

In addition to the slippage noted in today’s report, Children’s Rights has separately received recent evidence showing that child protective services workers — who perform the critical job of investigating reports of child abuse or neglect — may be carrying caseloads as high as 33 cases per worker, far in excess of the limit of 12 cases mandated by the settlement agreement.

“Maintaining manageable caseloads is a prerequisite for keeping kids safe,” Lustbader said. “If caseloads are too large, workers investigating child abuse simply cannot do their jobs and devote enough time to each case.”

While the report shows DFCS has made or sustained progress in some areas, which include placing children in foster homes closer to their own communities, ensuring that foster homes are not overcrowded, and ensuring that children are placed in licensed foster homes, today’s report cited several additional areas requiring improvement:

  • DFCS is still failing to ensure that foster children are regularly visiting with siblings placed in different foster homes. According to today’s report, only 50 percent of children in custody who have siblings placed in different homes are having at least one monthly visit, far short of the 95 percent required by the court-order.
  • DFCS is still failing to ensure that foster children receive required health check-ups. Under the court order, foster children must receive health check-ups at required intervals. But today’s report notes that the state’s progress has remained static — showing approximately 19 percent of the children whose cases were reviewed by the monitors did not receive initial health screenings, 50 percent did not receive initial dental check-ups, and 40 percent did not receive a health screening before being discharged from foster care.

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 seventh 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.

Related Press

Foster Children Experiencing High Rate of Abuse and Neglect (Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 24, 2010)