The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services has focused more on supporting families and reunifying them in recent years, which has turned around what had been an increasing trend of children in foster care in the state.
The Division of Family and Children Services has two basic missions, protecting children and helping families create the best possible environments for their children, said Director Tom Rawlings. "We have two questions: Can a child be safe (in that environment), and what services does a family need to overcome whatever dysfunction they have?"
That latter emphasis has become all the more important during the economic downturn caused by the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as more families are struggling financially, which can lead to strain in the home.
Family violence has increased during the pandemic, as mental health challenges and substance abuse increases all contribute to high stress in families, said Jonathan Sloan, director of the Whitfield County Division of Family and Children Services. However, outreach efforts, such as assisting families with food stamps, "has helped" reduce some of those anxieties.
The state Division of Family and Children Services partnered with the Georgia Department of Education for the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, which provides additional financial assistance to purchase groceries for families with children who receive free and/or reduced-price lunches at school. Those families received a one-time P-EBT allotment of $256.50 per eligible child.
In addition, the state Division of Family and Children Services' State of Hope program "remains alive and well," Rawlings explained last month during a Destination Hope engagement (a virtual reboot of the agency’s Blueprint for Change Roadshows of recent years that were designed as an opportunity for Rawlings to meet with staff, stakeholders and the public throughout Georgia). State of Hope is an initiative that seeks to encourage nonprofits, philanthropies, governments, businesses and communities to work closely to build local safety nets that will prevent conditions that contribute to disparities in education, threaten self-sufficiency of families and lead to child abuse and neglect.
"We need input from everyone who works with that child and knows (his or her) needs," Rawlings said. That includes parents, foster parents, attorneys, judges and Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers.
State of Hope, which launched three years ago, "invited everybody in the community" to "step up" and be part of the solution, said Dahlia Brown, deputy division director of strategy, innovation and engagement at the state Division of Family and Children Services. "We've even been able to give funds to some of those ideas" generated by communities.
The agency's office of prevention and community support works with Prevent Child Abuse Georgia, and that's also been a fruitful partnership, Brown said. Trainings are provided around the state to prevent abuse.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which was signed into law in 2018 and reforms federal child welfare financing streams by providing services to families where there's jeopardy of a child or children entering foster care, "gives us an opportunity to make better decisions about kids," Rawlings said. "Now, we can use federal funds to help families without first having to put kids in foster care to access those funds."
Region 1, which includes Whitfield County, has roughly 200 fewer children in foster care than at this time two years ago, said Danny Nuckolls, region director. The agency has made a concerted effort to exhaust all avenues before placing children into foster care, but meth addiction among parents remains perhaps the toughest challenge to stable families in northern Georgia.
"The epidemic of opioid addiction and especially meth addiction is one of the biggest scourges in our community," Chelsea DeWaters, program manager for the local Family Support Council's CASA program, explained earlier this summer. "There are so many loving homes where someone started meth, and it all unraveled, (as) that's not an addiction you kick quickly, because it's a powerful, powerful substance that has such a grip on people."
Region 1, which serves the counties of Catoosa, Chattooga, Cherokee, Dade, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Murray, Pickens, Walker and Whitfield, has historically had the highest number of foster care removals in the state, and "we've never figured out why," said Jerry Bruce, state court improvement program director for the Georgia Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children. Region 1 has mostly followed the state trend during the past 20 years, with high numbers of cases in the early 2000s dropping through roughly 2010, then picking up until roughly a year ago, and decreasing since.
In terms of raw maltreatment reports, Region 1 stands above the state average, with 45 per 10,000 residents, while the state average is 37 per 10,000, Bruce said. Region 1 had more than 9,000 reports from early 2019 through early 2020.
Statewide, roughly 28% of victims are removed to foster care, but that figure is 43% in Region 1, Bruce said. That's actually a drop for Region 1, however, as historically that percentage was even higher.
The vast majority of cases reported to the agency are neglect, and that's the case both statewide and in Region 1, he said. Physical and sexual abuse cases were once much more common, but are now at "all-time lows."
That's "a triumph of primary prevention," which is another of the agency's services that isn't as well known by the public, he said. "That's a real win right there."
In Region 1, roughly a quarter of children who enter foster care are placed with relatives, while that figure is 31% statewide, he said. Under Rawlings, placing children with relatives has been emphasized in the Division of Family and Children Services.
Roughly 14% of children in Region 1 are placed into institutions, a figure consistent since the late 1990s, and that's too high, but it's also critical to limit the number of moves for children within the foster care system generally, as it disrupts education and severs social connections, among other problems, he said. "Chaotic foster care is bad for children."
Another of the agency's goals is expediting adoptions for children following termination of parental rights, he said. The conventional wisdom has been that a judge terminating parental rights moves children toward "permanency" faster, but that's not always the case.
Roughly half the time, children remain in the foster care system a year after termination of parental rights, he said. Reasons for that are "a conversation we need to have."
In Region 1, half of the outcomes of children entering foster care result in reunifications with parents or a parent, which is "good," because reunification remains the goal, whenever possible, he said. "Foster care is a service to families while they get back on their feet."
"The goal is reuniting families, (because) the best thing for children is to be with their families whenever possible," DeWaters explained in June, noting that of all the children discharged from foster care in 2019 in Whitfield County, 35% were reunified with their families of origin. When children are removed from the care of their parents, their "whole lives are yanked out from under them, and it's very traumatic."
Roughly 250 children are currently in foster care in Whitfield and Murray counties, she said. That's "far less than there used to be, mostly because we're really focused on (alternatives to foster care, such as) reunifications."
"If a child will be safe, (he or she) deserves to be with (his or her) own family," she said. "Almost every single one of our kids wants to go home — it's very rare we have a child who doesn't want to — and we know there is something (between biological parents and their children) that simply cannot be replaced."
'No greater joy'
There is "no greater joy than knowing children get to go back with their families, their people," Sophia Golliher, CASA volunteer supervisor, said earlier this summer. "Kids are not going to forget their parents, (because) that's not the way we're built.''
If parents can "overcome the obstacles" in their lives and "come out the other end as productive parents, they deserve the chance" to parent their children, and "their children deserve to be with their parents," Tracy Harmon, CASA's volunteer outreach coordinator, said in June. "That is something to celebrate."