This past week began a four-part series of Senate committee meetings I have and will attend regarding looking at Georgia’s foster care system. Senator Kay Kirkpatrick chairs this committee and I value that Senator Jackson, who identified she and her wife are currently foster parents serve on the committee, as well as Senator Randy Robertson, who, along with his wife, successfully privately adopted a child previously. Their personal experience on the committee is invaluable. It seems the committee came about following Lt. Governor Burt Jones’s statements that he wants to make Georgia the most affordable state for adoptions. I don’t agree that’s the goal to strive for here, but I also know enough history about poverty-led orphanages and visited indigenous assimilation schools in Southern states that probably give me more pause than he does. I also have some experience with the foster system, as a recently licensed foster parent, and have both professional and volunteer experience with the issues of human trafficking and serving as a C.A.S.A. for Fulton County. Over the next few months, I will do what I always do- write about my personal experience and the gaps I see. I will pose the questions I don’t see posed by legislators that I think are important. I will share with readers my processing/ analysis of the topics discussed in the committee meetings and will try to give you some bigger-picture data as my husband has also been following the foster care systems in multiple Southern states for his work. Like I hope all of my pieces present- the personal is political, and the decisions the Georgia General Assembly makes (or ignores) have ramifications for my life, just like a ton of other Georgians-in this case, a particularly vulnerable set. This intro will level set, and I hope you’ll walk with me for the duration.
In 2019 my husband and I reached out to the Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS) to hopefully start our family. As a type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic, my ability to bear children would have to be so closely monitored as to possibly preclude my ability to work and, as mismanaged blood sugars can have detrimental effects on both me and a potential child I might bear, it has always seemed too risky to me. My mother’s own experience with miscarriage further emphasized that fostering and adoption would need to be my path to motherhood. I’ve always been open about this with friends and partners. I believe very deeply that parenthood and happiness come in various forms, and I am grateful for a husband who has shared that vision. Moreover, I have been grateful for his willingness to proceed with the state, instead of private adoption. We both have been very aware of the time children have spent in the state’s care, mine coming from years of nonprofit volunteering and paid work as a lobbyist, and his as a research analyst that looks at the DFCS system across states in the southeast. We believed we could do our part to provide a good home. ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ rings consistently in our ears.
To this end, the paper bouquet I carried at our wedding and the confetti we left our reception under were made from the adoption reform bill, introduced and carried by past state Rep. Bert Reeves. Over time we moved from an initial interest in adoption to foster care. In the 3.5-year process to become licensed foster parents, I took notes, recorded a few phone calls, and sent countless documents (repeatedly). This, along with my opinions, is what you will read here. Concurrently, I also reside in a neighborhood in Atlanta that is rapidly gentrifying. Some of the children that I interact with daily are in DFCS care because they have been removed from their original home and placed in kinship care. We have the unique perspective of hearing firsthand from the child’s perspective what it feels like to be placed in another home other than the parent the child knew more closely. In my husband’s work, he has often come home from reading the horror stories from his analysis of DFCS policies in other states that are chilling. This isn’t said to absolve Georgia of any of its challenges, more just that there is a spectrum of experience across the southern region of children in their state’s care.
Over the last few years, other state legislators from states other than Georgia, knowing of our interest in becoming foster parents, have inquired about our experience. It has been telling that even they thought it had been an unusually long process. Unsurprisingly, some have advocated for us to look into their state’s adoptions, as they felt their processes moved faster than even being cleared for fostering here in Georgia. As I have done in various instances with what I write, I will be using my story as the primary example of what it’s like to go through this process. My writing isn’t to vilify DFCS or any of its employees—quite the opposite. I am well aware that its caseworkers are overburdened, under-resourced, and underpaid. I hope that by sharing my experience I can offer insight into how this overburdening, under-resourcing, and underpaying caseworkers affects children, particularly when the Lt. Governor of Georgia has taken a new interest in the state’s care of them. Finally, if not implicit, I did not call upon anyone for favors. While I have Commissioner Broce’s cell number, (and thought very seriously about calling it once), I have kept this as quiet as possible to not draw attention to our case so that I could offer as honest of an assessment as possible. I do have a few friends who have served as both foster and adoptive parents of children and, concurrently, were going through the Fulton County system at the same time as my husband and I, although they started later and moved through the process faster. There are also a few Facebook groups for foster parents, both local and one that covers the state which made me aware that while my family’s experience isn’t the most egregious I’ve found, long lines to approval are not uncommon across our state. There are also those in Georgia who do not get licensed at all. I know of at least one same-sex couple who were not licensed in Gwinnett County and another couple who attempted adoption through the state’s contracted entities but were turned away because they were atheists.
I mention these cases simply to say the price of adoption isn’t always the challenge in Georgia.
While in this series I’ll discuss the timeline that brought me here, also I’m going to delve into numbers of staff compensation (unsurprisingly: should be more), case volume (unsurprisingly: should be less), DFCS employees make, and compare them to other states. While I’m not a particular fan of comparisons of states across the South (I find we like to use that as a badge of honor when it’s only saying we’re not at the bottom of the barrel), I will note the trends. Ultimately, I hope lawmakers in Georgia will do their own research. Ask deeper questions, and commit to keeping regular tabs on our foster care system. Legislators are, in fact, the only people who can hold DFCS accountable. To my knowledge, there is no oversight of DFCS other than the Georgia General Assembly.
I want to be clear- While my husband and I started the process in 2019 and we were licensed June 15, 2023, there was a six-month gap after our initial inquiry that was our choice- not a delay by DFCS. That said, I have a single female friend who started at the same time and is currently still not licensed. Conversely, there is a couple in my church whose process took six months and have already hosted multiple children. At the time of this publication, we have received four separate calls for respite placement of children. We have said yes to all, but for one reason or another, we have yet to host a child in our home. It has been a learning experience in multiple ways, and the whirl of activity is normal in that no one plans when children will enter into the state’s care nor have I found that when DFCS tells me a child will show up, they arrive.
Finally, as I write this, I ask legislators to reach out to foster parents in their districts. I encourage them to find out what’s going on in their areas. Region 14 (Fulton and Dekalb) is not the same as what you will find in Taliaferro or Echols County. I ask you to consider how large of a footprint the caseworkers in various regions have to cover. Is that reasonable? Are those children getting the care they need? I hope Senators on the committee ask questions about how the presentations they see affect the realities of the foster parents in their districts. What works ITP will not OTP, and I sincerely hope we all contribute to the meaningful work of this committee and endeavor to establish something lasting to go beyond these brief four meetings. And as a reminder, I am not a journalist, but an opinion writer who makes mistakes and has only one perspective, so please remember to check behind me, challenge my assertions, and ask people in your districts what their experiences are. They are the experts in your area, not me.