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.
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.