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Critics say bills to slow influx of foster children in Georgia ignore root causes

While a slate of proposed legislation aims to prevent the separation of families, child welfare advocates argue more needs to be done to combat the primary reason kids enter foster care: poverty.

ATLANTA (CN) — As it stands now, Georgia's foster care system is responsible for over 11,000 children. But the Peach State only has 4,744 licensed foster homes.

About 800 more children entered the state’s custody in 2022 than the year prior. The sharp increase came the same year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing Georgia’s six-week abortion ban to take effect just weeks later in July. 

Now some state senators are scrambling to pass legislation at the urging of the state's Division of Family and Children Services, which is demanding that more be done to slow the influx of children the agency is receiving. 

As DFCS employee turnover spiked in 2022, with more than 55% of all caseworkers leaving the job, the already understaffed department has been under fire for allegations of not adequately responding to child abuse reports and “inappropriate” placement services for victims of abuse by the state’s ombudsman, the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate. 

However, the most alarming issue to capture the attention of state legislators is the practice of “hoteling.”

Between 50 to 70 children in foster care are currently residing in a hotel or a DFCS office with a stranger, until the state can find an appropriate placement for them. 

These children often have severe and complex mental and/or behavioral health conditions and their parents lack access to treatment interventions. While a residential psychiatric treatment facility is often the most appropriate placement for these children, it can be inaccessible or take several months due to Medicaid denial of coverage, shortage of facility beds or inability of facility to care for the complexity of the child’s needs.

Last year, the DFCS spent $28 million alone on hoteling foster children. 

A slate of four bills making their way across the Georgia Senate floor are aimed at establishing a formal process for the state to assume custody of children as a result of disposition orders. Senate Bill 133 would also require the court to provide the DFCS with the child’s medical, psychological and educational documentation, so caseworkers can find a proper placement as soon as possible. 

On top of managing over 30 kids at a time, a workload that one former DFCS caseworker described, finding placement can also be difficult because caseworkers are not immediately provided with information about the child’s needs. 

“It’s important for foster parents to be well informed about the kids they’re receiving,” said Dr. Jeanne Williams, who has a doctorate's and master's degree in social work and serves as a court-appointed special advocate, also known as a CASA volunteer. 

Children entering foster care rely heavily on the support of CASA volunteers, who look out for their best interests as well as helping families do what they need to in order to get their child back. But there are only so many of them to go around. 

Williams said many children exhibit behavioral issues when they’re put into a foster home because they are traumatized, and many foster parents don’t know how to properly handle that. She said if they were more prepared for what to expect ahead of time, fewer children would be removed from their home and put into hotels while waiting for a new one.

“Senate Bill 133 will ensure every possible alternative is exhausted with all of the right people involved in decision-making before a child is ordered into foster care,” a spokesperson for the DFCS said.

The Georgia Capitol Building. (Credit: DXR - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50257863)

But child welfare advocates argue the proposed legislation fails to tackle the root cause of why most children enter foster care. 

While 16% of children enter foster care as a result of physical or sexual abuse, the vast majority have been separated from their families as a result of “neglect” – a euphemism for poverty. 


“When money can solve the problem, foster care is not the solution,” said a child advocate and volunteer who works with a non-profit to help stabilize families involved in the child welfare system who are struggling with poverty. She asked not to be identified to protect her work.

“I believe the solution is keeping as many children as you can out of the system, that you nail the door to foster care, that it should be there for the kids who truly need safety," she said. "It would relieve the burden that is on child welfare.”

She said policymakers are not providing the support Georgians need to keep their families intact, and that more efforts to address low wages and affordable housing would save children from the extreme trauma they often experience when placed into foster care. 

The state isn’t able to provide the child with the resources they need until after they’re already in state custody, which allows state and federal funding to be used. Georgia spends about $490 million each year on child welfare agencies and also receives nearly $400 million in federal funding, according to data from Child Trends.  

Foster parents are entitled to monthly payments ranging from $500 to $750 per child. In some cases, adoptive families also receive health insurance for the child until they reach adulthood. Some say if these same benefits were offered to the separated children's families, it could have a similarly positive effect.

According to the child welfare volunteer, It would “be much cheaper, much more effective and better for the children” if the government reallocated funding to provide for children’s basic needs in the home, instead of putting them into foster care and a stranger’s home.

With the passing of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act in 2018, states are allowed to spend federal Title IV-E funds on certain mental health services, substance use treatment and parenting skills courses for families before a child is removed. 

DFCS implemented a plan in 2021 to provide parent training, family therapy and therapy for troubled youth when a child is referred to child welfare or for pregnant youth already in foster care. But services for adult substance use disorder and adult mental health are not included, even though the agency “recognizes that there is still a significant need” for such services. 

“If our policy makers actually addressed the social determinants that are bringing families to the attention of child welfare, you wouldn’t have this sort of crisis that we’re seeing with DFCS. They’re overloaded, they don’t have the resources to meet the needs and shouldn’t be the ones having to,” the volunteer said.

She added, "I have seen so many families and single moms who are working and don’t have child care for their child who has autism or a disability. Instead of helping that loving mom, the state takes them into foster care where they have the allocated funding towards. It’s a terrible, terrible system and it's up to our policy makers to change it. And the people who work in the system are often very good, hard working people, who work for very little money.”

Metro Atlanta communities are facing a huge lack of affordable housing. The city leads the nation in percentage of homes sold to investment firms, who have snatched up thousands of single-family houses to convert into overpriced rental properties. The supply shortage of homes is also an advantage for landlords, as people who can’t afford the rising home prices are forced to rent instead. A recent investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution unveiled that many investor-owned apartment complexes are left unmanaged and “uninhabitable” with dangerous living conditions and rampant violent crime.

According to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a shortage of over 200,000 rental homes that are affordable and available for extremely low-income renters in Georgia. 

While the average annual household income needed to afford a two-bedroom rental home is $43,618, many low-income Georgians do not make that much, as the minimum wage has not increased from $7.25 since 2009.

One adult working full-time with just one child needs to earn at least $34.15 an hour to afford food, child care, medical costs, housing, transportation and other life expenses for them both, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's living wage calculator. Two adults working full-time would need to earn at least $19.01 per hour each to provide for themselves and just one child.

“Everyone agrees that it is traumatic to remove a child from their parents. The problem is that we don’t have other options," said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. "We, as a state, should commit ourselves to making sure we have the resources and services available to strengthen that family and make sure that the parents can provide the care for their own child that they deeply desire to but are unable to."

Carter is working to help protect children’s legal rights and promote child welfare system improvements along with policymakers, judges and DCFS Commissioner Candice Broce.

“It’s a question of state responsibility and a question of how we use the funding that’s available to us, how we define policy in order to make those services and interventions available in ways that don’t require the state to separate that family and take custody of that child," she said. "And right now, we don’t have those."

Categories: Government Law Politics Regional

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