ATLANTA, GA — Three years after the state of Georgia undertook a major effort to reform the Atlanta child welfare system under a federal court order secured by Children’s Rights, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has improved its oversight of abused and neglected children in state custody, says a new report issued today. But the report also shows that DFCS is still falling short in its implementation of court-ordered reforms in several key areas — and must heighten its efforts to comply with the court order regardless of budgetary concerns, Children’s Rights officials say.
(PDF) credits DFCS with increasing face-to-face contact between children and the caseworkers responsible for ensuring their well-being and placing more children in state-licensed foster homes that have undergone adequate background checks and safety screenings. But it also underscores DFCS’s continued failure to deliver health care and other critical services to children, and its lack of progress in finding permanent homes for many children who have remained in state custody for years. And though the report notes a decline in the rate of abuse or neglect among children in Atlanta foster care — a first in what had been a steady upward trend since 2005 — that rate still far exceeds the standards mandated by the court order.
“It’s encouraging that caseworkers are finally visiting children in their foster care placements, and that DFCS appears to be monitoring those placements more carefully,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “But too many kids are still not getting basic health care services or a chance for a permanent home out of state custody, and we will continue to push state officials to heighten their efforts in these areas.”
Lustbader also noted the dangers that recent cost-cutting measures pose to the ongoing reforms. “Georgia has begun furloughing case workers and denying basic cost-of-living increases in support payments to foster families,” Lustbader said. “DFCS is putting both the progress it has made and the children in its care at great risk if it continues down this path.”
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 (approximately 1,900 at present). In 2005, Children’s Rights and state officials reached a court-enforceable settlement agreement 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, authored by independent, court-appointed monitors and required under the court order, is the fifth issued since the Kenny A. case was settled.
The report, which covers the first half of 2008, notes the following improvements:
- DFCS caseworkers are visiting children more frequently in their foster homes. While still falling far short of court-ordered requirements, DFCS caseworker visits with children more than doubled during the first half of 2008. Over one-third (36 percent) of children received required twice-monthly visits from their case managers with at least one visit per month occurring in the child’s foster placement. That’s up from only 14 percent during the second half of 2007.
- DFCS is placing more children in fully licensed foster homes. The report shows that 96 percent of Atlanta foster children were living in state-licensed foster homes or other state-approved placements, ensuring that caregivers had undergone necessary safety screens. That’s just short of the court-ordered benchmark of 98 percent.
- Children in DFCS foster care placements experienced fewer instances of abuse or neglect. The rate of maltreatment in foster care dropped to 0.9 percent during the first half of 2008 — down from a high of 1.01 percent during the previous six months. While still far exceeding the court-ordered benchmark of no more than 0.57 percent, that marks the first decline in the maltreatment rate, which had previously steadily worsened since 2005. The report cautions that it is too soon to tell whether this represents a reversal of the trend or just a one-time improvement.
However, the report also highlights serious ongoing problems:
- DFCS failed to provide children with health care and other essential services. Nearly half (46 percent) of all children in Atlanta foster care are not receiving necessary medical, dental, mental health, or other essential services that DFCS is required to provide. Under the Kenny A. court order, DFCS is required to meet all the health care and other service needs of at least 85 percent of Atlanta foster children.
- DFCS failed to find permanent homes for children stuck for years in state custody. Among children who had been in foster care for up to 24 months at the time of the 2005 court order, DFCS found permanent homes for fewer than one in five (19 percent) — less than half of the court-ordered benchmark of 40 percent. Among children who had been in foster care longer than 24 months at the time of the court order, DFCS found permanent homes for only 14 percent — far short of the required 35 percent.
In August of 2008, the Division’s ongoing failure to meet court-ordered requirements for these two categories of children stuck in foster care was the subject of a contempt motion filed by Children’s Rights against the state. Children’s Rights and state officials are currently attempting to negotiate a new action plan to address that problem area, which, if agreed upon, would halt contempt proceedings — but leave open the option of returning to court if adequate progress is not made in a reasonable amount of time.
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.
Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210