Advocates Seek Contempt Finding Against State of Georgia

ATLANTA, GA — Citing the ongoing failure of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) to meet court-ordered requirements to find permanent homes for hundreds of abused and neglected children languishing in state custody, the national advocacy group Children’s Rights and local co-counsel today asked the federal court to find the state in contempt.

The motion, filed with Judge Marvin H. Shoob of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, asserts that the state has failed to meet two critical requirements of the court-enforceable settlement agreement reached in 2005 in the federal reform class action known as Kenny A. v. Perdue. That lawsuit was brought by Children’s Rights and the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore LLP in 2002 on behalf of approximately 2,000 children in foster care in Atlanta.

The advocates charge the state with failing to find permanent homes for children who have languished in Georgia’s child welfare system since before October 2005. As of the end of 2007 (the last date for which official data are available), this included nearly 650 children — nearly one-third of all children in Atlanta foster care. The consent decree requires only modest reductions in the system’s backlog, but the state has failed to make them. In the last six months of 2007, for example, DFCS promised to find permanent homes for 310 out of 819 children who had already been in foster care for years; they met their obligations for only 125 of these children.

“The benchmarks mandated by the Kenny A. settlement are relatively modest, but the state has proven itself incapable of making even these preliminary steps toward improvement — and we have no choice but to ask the court to help the children we represent,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is simply unacceptable that so many should face the prospect of spending their entire young lives without families.”

The Kenny A. court order set separate benchmarks for two populations of children in DFCS custody: those who had been in foster care for up to 24 months at the time of the settlement and those who had been in foster care for more than 24 months at that time. The court order requires DFCS to find permanent homes for 40 percent of children remaining in the “24-month backlog pool” every six months; among children in the “over-24-month backlog pool,” DFCS is required to find permanent homes for 35 percent every six months.

In 2007, however, DFCS found permanent homes for fewer than one in ten children (9 percent) who remained on its backlog of those in foster care for more than 24 months at the time of the settlement — barely one-quarter of the number required by the Kenny A. court order — and for only one in five children (20 percent) on its backlog of those in foster care for up to 24 months at that time.

Research has shown that the long-term outcomes for children who grow up as wards of the state are often markedly worse than for those who grow up in permanent families. Children who “age out” of public child welfare systems when they reach the age of majority have a much higher than normal probability of experiencing homelessness, poor health, unemployment, substance abuse, and incarceration as adults.

“Hundreds of children have aged out of DFCS custody without ever getting the chance to grow up in a permanent family, and hundreds more are currently at risk of experiencing the same fate,” Lowry said. “We do not believe the state is taking all necessary steps to provide these children with permanent families, as the court order requires.”

Defendants in the case now have the opportunity to file a response to the contempt motion, at which point the court will determine next steps. Should Judge Shoob make a finding of contempt, he is empowered to order a remedial action to correct the persisting problems.

Children’s Rights, along with the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore LLP, filed the Kenny A. class action in 2002 against Governor Sonny Perdue and state officials responsible for the Georgia Department of Human Resources and its Division of Family and Children Services. The lawsuit charged that the foster care system in Atlanta was underfunded, mismanaged, and failing to protect the safety and well-being of children in state custody. The 2005 settlement requires the state to achieve and sustain a set of 31 outcome measures for child welfare reform in the metropolitan Atlanta area. The full text of the Kenny A. settlement agreement, the contempt motion and semiannual monitoring reports documenting the performance of DFCS are available here.