ATLANTA, GA — The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) may be endangering the safety and well-being of thousands of vulnerable children by diverting them from the custody of the state child welfare system and failing to provide the services and protections necessary to keep them safe, according to papers filed in federal court today by Children’s Rights.
Children’s Rights is asking the federal court to allow the organization access to DFCS records that advocates believe will demonstrate the state agency is attempting to artificially suppress child abuse and neglect investigations and lower the number of children in foster care by misusing alternatives to foster care. The result of such actions would be denying abused and neglected children vital legal protections offered to kids who are brought to the attention of the Juvenile Court.
If the evidence sought by Children’s Rights bears out these charges, DFCS’s actions would constitute a violation of a longstanding federal court order to reform the Atlanta child welfare system — itself the result of a class action brought by Children’s Rights and the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP on behalf of thousands of abused and neglected children in Fulton and DeKalb Counties. Today’s motion comes on the heels of a recent report showingDFCS is backsliding in its implementation of the reforms mandated by the federal court.
“Intensive family preservation services are important and can be very effective tools to reduce the need for foster care and avoid the unnecessary trauma of separating families, but only if they are used appropriately and safely,” said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights. “The misuse of these programs to suppress the number of investigations and the number of kids in foster care can be extremely dangerous for both the child and family, and we must immediately determine if that is the case in Atlanta.”
Today’s motion (PDF) draws heavily on multiple investigations conducted by the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) over the last three years, which showed that dramatic reductions in the number of children in foster care and the number of reports of abuse that even get investigated have been accomplished in part by the state agency’s misuse of two strategies — diversion and safety resources — designed to support families and prevent children from being placed into foster care unnecessarily.
Diversion, also referred to as family support, aims to avoid conducting a formal child abuse investigation by helping families who struggle with problems that may primarily stem from poverty issues and do not present an immediate threat to the child’s safety. According to the OCA investigations, there is evidence that DFCS is too quick to shift families to family support programs, even in cases of actual child maltreatment, and in that process is failing to investigate serious allegations of abuse and neglect.
The other strategy employed by DFCS is the use of homes called safety resources, where parents can voluntarily place their child with a relative or family friend while accessing community services or being investigated for abuse or neglect. Though the state’s policies clearly state that safety resources must pass basic safety screens and should only be used as a short-term solution, OCA reported that many children have been found left in unscreened and unmonitored homes for extremely long periods of time without any support from the agency.
OCA’s most recent report from July 2009 (PDF) concluded that DFCS appears to use these tactics to “avoid the involvement of the juvenile court in the child protection process, thereby depriving the child and family of the many legal and practical benefits the court offers and circumventing purposeful federal and state child protection schemes.”
Children’s Rights has exhausted several good-faith efforts over the last several months to obtain necessary documents both through DFCS and the independent monitors appointed by the federal court. Both the agency and the monitors claimed the requests were outside the scope of the 2005 federal court order secured by Children’s Rights.
Today’s filing argues that if the state is in fact misusing diversion and safety resources, as evidenced by OCA’s research, the agency is not only cheating these families and their children of the due process benefits of court involvement, but is also denying them the protections of the federal class action. Therefore Children’s Rights is requesting federal court intervention for access to the state’s policy and procedures related to diversion and the use of safety resources, as well as information on all children and families involved in either program in calendar year 2009.
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.
All related information on Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform Atlanta’s child welfare system can be found at www.childrensrights.org/georgia.