State of emergency: Shortage of foster homes leads to separated siblings, moving far from home

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GA Foster Care

Georgia is in a “state of emergency” when it comes to foster care, and Floyd County was ranked the fifth highest county per capita for children removed from their homes, according to DFCS officials and a report from Georgia Child Welfare Measures.

Some 244 children from Floyd County were sent into foster care from April 2014 through March 2015, according to the statistics.

That state rate over that time period was 31.2 children per 10,000. Floyd County’s rate was 104.5 per 10,000.

Why is the rate so high? There are several reasons, according to local officials.

“It comes down to the fact that we are looking more,” said Floyd County Juvenile Court Judge Greg Price. “We have two hospitals and many medical professionals who are required to report suspicious things. We have a high number of teachers and law enforcement as well.”

These individuals are trained to notice signs of trouble, he added.

“When you’re a mechanic trained to fix problems on VWs, when you drive down the road, you’re going to see the VWs first,” explained Price.

Another issue is cyclical abuse and neglect, according to Price and Lindsey Howerton, director of the Floyd County Division of Family and Children Services.

“We have many families who repeat the cycle of abuse and neglect,” she said. “They stay here. Their children have children, and it keeps going and no one breaks the pattern.”

The reasons for the removal of children from their homes covers a wide range, with 120 removed for neglect, 80 removed because their parents were abusing drugs or alcohol, 52 removed because parents were unable to cope, 88 removed for inadequate housing, 30 were abandoned and 32 were victims of physical abuse. Other reasons include sexual abuse, domestic violence or because parents are incarcerated.

Howerton said the specific reasons stated can be misleading.

“Many times, when we investigate further, we may find signs of physical or sexual abuse when the child was originally removed for neglect or drug abuse,” she said. “This is especially true for a younger child who is not in school. If that child is only going to the doctor once a year, it is much harder to catch.”

A major crisis situation arises after these children are removed, because Floyd County only has 16 DFCS foster homes.

“This often results in our children being placed out of county, which causes all kinds of problems,” she said. “The children have a harder time coming back for court dates and for visits with their families. Also, you have the added trauma for the child, which is just increased by them having to completely relocate and have nothing familiar around them.”

DFCS always tries to help the families, she added, and this is made more difficult when the child is miles away.

“Our main goal when a child is removed from a home is to work with the parents to help them change behaviors if possible and bring their child home,” Howerton said. “Having to place that child in a home in Macon just makes it that much harder on everyone.”

So, the first thing DFCS does is try to find a qualified family member or family friend who can take the child. This is the best option, but sometimes is impossible because they might not live in the area or may be unsuitable.

Issues also often arise because of siblings, she said.

“We have a lot of multiple-child families, and the ideal would be to have those siblings together or at least close to each other,” she said. “This becomes hard because many foster families can’t handle that many children at once.”

Floyd does have 23 homes that work with child placing agencies, such as Faith Bridge, Howerton added. However, these homes can have children who are not from Floyd County placed in them. Winshape Homes is its own entity and does work with DFCS as much as possible, she said.

“We have two large sibling groups placed with Winshape currently,” she said.

The Open Door Home is a group home and children are only placed there if they are 13 or older.

“We are always hoping that if people know there is a need, they will be willing to serve as foster families,” she said.

Potential foster families attend classes, she said. Families are taught about the process from start to finish about policies and how a child might behave.

“For instance, a child who has suffered neglect may hoard food,” she said. “I’ve had children who don’t understand or know about the bath routine and a child who had never seen a toothbrush.”

Those who want to foster are also given a home study session in which a DFCS agent comes into the home and observes the environment and the family’s interaction.

“Most understand the reasons behind this,” Howerton said. “It is all about the safety and well-being of the child. The home studies are usually completed within two or three sessions.”

Foster parents also have to undergo fingerprinting, background checks and financial checks.

“We have to make sure they can handle the extra expense,” Howerton said. “We do not so much pay as reimburse. A foster family has to be stable enough to handle extra costs like clothing, diapers and glasses, and then be reimbursed.”

Once approved, foster parents are often immediately needed.

“I’ve had families receive a child the day they were approved,” Howerton said.

About 75 percent of the 422 Floyd County children in foster care are placed outside of Floyd County, Howerton said. Of the 25 percent here, the majority are placed with family members.

These numbers frustrate Howerton, she said.

“I would love to put myself out of a job,” she said. “We are trying to build strong families in a strong community. When it comes to foster care in this county and this state, we are in a state of emergency.”

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It’s Time For All States To Be Serious About Foster Care Reform

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It’s disheartening that the state is still wrangling with implementing reforms to protect children in state custody.

I have been writing about the Olivia Y case since the original federal lawsuit was filed in 2004 on behalf of children in the state’s foster care system.

The original complaint detailed physical and psychological harm suffered by the children while known to, or in the custody of, the Department of Human Services Division of Family and Children’s Services. Citing the state’s own reports, the lawsuit alleged incidents of sexual abuse, unqualified employees, backlogged cases, shortages of safe foster homes and fiscal mismanagement, among other problems.

In 2008, the state entered into a federal settlement agreement, saying DHS would do, among other things: Hire more social workers and increase the number of visits the workers make to each foster child; increase its offerings of educational and therapeutic services for foster parents and children; better monitor children’s physical and mental health when they enter foster care; and establish a 24-hour hotline so people could report abuse, and increase reimbursement rates for foster parents.

The state has never been in compliance with the settlement agreement. Last week, the state admitted it.

Children in the foster care system often have been abused, neglected and victimized. Certainly, no one would want them to be further victimized by a system that is supposed to protect them.

It appears with last week’s admission by the state, and Gov. Phil Bryant’s vow to improve the foster care system, that the state is finally getting serious about the issue. Let’s hope that is the case.

Bryant has agreed to hire an executive director of the Department of Family and Children’s Services and waive state salary parameters for the director and for members of a senior management team. The state has also agreed to hire a national child welfare consulting group, the Public Catalyst Group, to conduct an organizational analysis of the state’s foster care system and recommend whether it should be a free-standing agency, how it should be structured and what the state needs to do to remedy all of its violations of the court-ordered reform plan. The group will also recommend qualified applicants from which the governor will select the agency’s director.

The governor has also agreed to call a special session of the Legislature, if necessary, to support the reorganization of the child welfare system and provide additional appropriations to act on the expert group’s recommendations, if the state agrees to adopt them, according to the updated agreement approved last week.

Bryant was right when he said the state can do better to protect children in the foster care system.

Contact Jimmie E. Gates at (601) 961-7212 or jgates@jackson.gannett.som. Follow @jgatesnews on Twitter.