Children’s Advocates Demand Swift Action as Abuse Rises in Atlanta Foster Care and Reforms Erode

ATLANTA – Children in Atlanta foster care are suffering abuse and neglect in increasing numbers in their state-supervised foster homes and institutions, according to a new report issued today on the state-run Atlanta child welfare system — and advocates for the city’s vulnerable children are calling on state officials to act quickly to rectify this and other serious problems noted in the report.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has been under federal court order to reform the Atlanta child welfare system since the 2005 settlement of a class action brought by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights and the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore on behalf of several thousand children in the custody of the failing Atlanta child welfare system.

Although the state had previously made important progress in improving its care and treatment of abused and neglected children, today’s report (PDF) shows that DFCS’s performance in the second half of 2009 on several key measures was its worst to date.

The rate of maltreatment of children in Atlanta foster care from July through December 2009 was the highest since the monitors began tracking DFCS’s progress, with the majority of increased maltreatment happening in group homes and institutions — settings where the monitors previously raised serious concerns about DFCS’ ability to oversee children. Additionally, DFCS performed poorly in its delivery of health care services to children during the six-month monitoring period and child welfare workers’ caseloads are on the rise.

“Atlanta’s performance on measures critical to keeping children in foster care safe is inexcusable,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “If DFCS does not act swiftly to fix these problems, we will return to court to ensure that the state makes these required improvements in the state’s oversight and protection of these vulnerable kids.”

The report noted some areas in which DFCS had continued to make progress — including placing children in foster care closer to their homes, reducing overcrowding in foster homes, and ensuring that foster homes are appropriately licensed. But it also detailed several areas in which reforms deteriorated in the latter half of 2009:

  • DFCS is failing to provide safe homes for children in foster care. The rate at which children suffer abuse and neglect in Atlanta foster care has continued to increase over the last six months and is now more than three and a half times the national standard. Additionally, the latest report found multiple incidents of child maltreatment and almost 100 children kept overnight — some for several days — in a Fulton County assessment center strictly limited by federal court order to 23-hour placements. The assessment center was created when the Children’s Rights lawsuit forced the closure of DFCS’s dangerous, overcrowded emergency shelters in 2006.
  • DFCS is falling short in its efforts to provide health and dental care for kids. Recent data has indicated that as many as 28 percent of children in foster care needing follow-up medical or dental check-ups never received them.
  • Child welfare workers’ caseloads have significantly increased. Caseload sizes for at least a third of DFCS’s workforce are above the standard of 12 to 17 cases per worker — sometimes as high as 30 to 40 cases per worker — during a time when the number of families and children in the system has stayed stable. According to the monitors, the spike in caseloads — the state’s poorest performance in this area since the 2005 settlement — may be due to high turnover rates and the state’s failure to replace workers due to budget constraints.

Children’s Rights and Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore 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.

In 2008, Children’s Rights filed a motion requesting the state be held in contempt for failing to find permanent homes for hundreds of children who had languished in foster care for years. Four months later, Children’s Rights agreed to withdraw its contempt motion in exchange for DFCS’s court-enforceable commitment to take specific aggressive measures, including working with national experts to find permanent homes for all children who remained in state custody.

The full text of today’s report and all other legal documents pertaining to Children’s Rights’ lawsuit in the state of Georgia can be found at www.childrensrights.org/georgia.

Related Press

Foster care abuse and neglect up in Fulton and DeKalb (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 07/23/2010)