A couple of weeks ago, the Senate Adoption and Foster Care Study Committee began at 10 am in the Senate Rules Committee Room, disappointingly minus any fanfare music reminiscent of former Chairman Mullis. There were many of the faces I expected to see in the room, elected and lobbying. You can find the video of the meeting here. While long, if you care about kids in Georgia or even have a passing interest in the topic, watch it. The meeting was dense with information-probably more akin to the current committee Chair’s approach. A fair amount of information shared were things anyone working or volunteering in the space has known for years, but I certainly also learned new things and made new connections to old challenges. You can review the documents and presentations here. This piece will highlight portions of the presentations and I’ll weave a bit of my own experience and knowledge into it. I hope everyone notices in the video that Jerry Bruce, Director of the Office of the Child Advocate, spoke without any notes. I did. I probably found his presentation the most engaging. The presentation from the Council of State Governments was a greater overview of data across the South. It was all policy- not politics, and best practices. Amy Atkinson, Executive Director, Virginia’s Commission on Youth, who was on the screen, gave me the most hope for what we *could* do in Georgia if we try. If we try to do some basic organizing of meetings, conversations, and sharing data, it could have an ongoing impact. Here’s hoping! FYI, there will be four meetings, one of which will be in Columbus, all others at the Capitol. The next meeting will be on September 26th, at 10 AM in Room 307 of the CLOB, if you would like to attend. I hope you will. There were open seats in the first meeting. I hope the subsequent meetings will be standing-room only. Georgia’s children deserve your attention.

The morning began with a discussion of a state overview of DFCS. Commissioner Broce took pride in the fact DFCS has reduced the hoteling of children in the state’s care. I know this was a specific goal of hers, shared with me after a previous piece I’ve written. It is a noble goal. I believe we would all like to believe no child should be shoved off into a hotel room instead of a loving home. Friends of mine have referenced the hoteling issue as they have been perplexed over the length of time it took for my husband and me to be licensed. It would seem that more foster parents would resolve the challenge of hoteling, yet I’m not so sure about that. The reality of hoteling is far more complicated. The children in hotels are often the most difficult (in some way) to place. This isn’t to say they are ‘bad’ or will cause harm, but they may not fit into the family homes that are available at the moment. 

There is an understandable tension DFCS caseworkers have to hold. They take the reality of the children they have to place and then try to find homes where families will be loving. That loving home must be ready for a variety of supports, depending upon the child’s situation. These supports also build in a lag time between reimbursement from the state that is rather archaic- requiring all invoices to be submitted via snail mail rather than email. Ironically, this isn’t because DFCS cannot receive emailed invoices- they did during the pandemic- they just switched back to paper somewhat recently. So an implicit portion of fostering is essentially floating the state for months on end. This is a part of the family’s caseworker’s assessment of the family’s abilities. In my case, one of the children to be placed with us initially had just been taken off a psychotropic drug because of a misdiagnosis due to grief over the loss of a family member and would require making sure the child got to counseling appointments (virtual). The caseworker for my husband and I was worried we might be averse to receiving a child that required therapy. As two people who have regularly seen therapists over the years, both individually and together in our marriage, we assured our caseworker that therapized children didn’t intimidate us. 

However, our lack of intimidation and financial ability does not ensure a perfect fit. As a result, similar to a mediator negotiating a settlement, DFCS caseworkers on both sides of the placement aspire to vet as closely both the child and the foster family to ensure the child is fully supported and welcome. If the child is a teenager with tendencies of running away, the caseworkers would probably choose a household that has experienced this before and successfully dealt with it well for the teenage placement. In that case, my house wouldn’t be the best fit. 

However, I should also mention that caseworkers try to keep an eye out for burnout in foster families. Those families who may have more experience with runaways or receive more medically fragile children, or just children with greater challenges in adapting to their new home may need a break more often. Foster families who need a short break can place their foster children into respite care. Respite care is a short-term placement for kids already in the DFCS system whose foster parents need a break for one reason or another- the foster parent is having surgery, the foster parent is going out of state for a funeral, or the foster parent just needs some time for their own needs. My husband refers to this as the DFCS equivalent of going to grandma’s minus the all-you-can-eat cookies and ice cream. My experience is that DFCS tries to have new foster parents serve as these respite caregivers for dual purposes. This gives a newly licensed foster parent (like me) a chance to stick their toes in the foster care water so to speak before receiving a full-time placement that is ongoing. It also gives that existing foster parent a breather. This has been both my experience and the experience of another couple who are foster parents in my church. This is helpful for all involved. 

I should pause here for a moment and say- most families seem to want younger children to foster and adopt. This is probably a good time to share our initial rebuffs from DFCS. When my husband and I interacted with DFCS with our first caseworker there was a two-month lag in response, and then another set of questions and correspondence that got us sent up the pole to the Regional Director. Here’s that exchange. Here are the notes I took from that period, which include links to our recorded phone conversations. We found the phone conversations were far more forthright than the email exchanges. Essentially, if we wanted to solely adopt- go through a private agency, if we want to go for younger children-go through a private agency. This isn’t because these options aren’t available through DFCS, but Fulton doesn’t want to deal with us if we don’t fit into their immediate needs for housing either sibling groups of three or more or teenagers. I don’t interpret our being pushed to a private agency as a preference of DFCS, but more as a means to an end. In a subsequent conversation my husband and I learned about the caseloads these caseworkers are juggling. Spoiler alert: they’re overwhelmed.

General Assembly members may remember a few years ago when the age limit for foster care was extended because Georgia has so many foster kids aging out of the system. Without anyone to support them in young adulthood, these kids often struggle financially and mentally. When most people think of adoption, fostering, or child-rearing in general, they think of the experience THEY want to have as parents, without fully considering the needs of the children they will encounter. As a matter of fact, during the Southern Legislative Conference session, Senator Kirkpatrick referenced at the beginning of her Senate meeting, a young woman stood up from another Southern state and asked about the challenge of parents who want to return children they adopted. 

This wasn’t surprising to me to hear at all, sadly.

I had a neighbor who encouraged me to adopt internationally because of the prevalence of drug-born issues in babies born here in the U.S. Babies are a commodity for some. There is a certain sector of individuals who (at worst) want designer babies, or (at best) don’t know their limitations in the face of significant trauma. Please don’t interpret that I mean this is true of all private or international adoptions, more just that I will say I completely understand why a Fulton DFCS’s Regional Director consistently encouraged my husband and me over the past 3.5 years to go through a private agency. I’m sure she’s seen enough folks with our income, race, and ‘good intentions’ to fear all that the resources fall to the wayside when a child in her care falls to pieces in a mental break and lashes out at well-meaning foster parents. 

DFCS has to pick up those pieces no matter what, and more often than not, in the middle of the night. 

In the committee meeting, I heard names I knew nothing about. I was unfamiliar with Together Georgia, among other groups mentioned in the meeting. I was surprised Voices for Georgia’s Children was not a part of the data-sharing mix, but representatives from that organization were present. The meeting seemed metro Atlanta-focused, with folks referencing Cobb & Paulding Counties. I was surprised no one from Fulton or Dekalb DFCS was present- it appeared to be only state-level folks. This makes sense as a place to begin, but I hope the committee will explore what foster care looks like across our state. If I were sitting in the seats of those legislators, I’d like to know what foster care looks like for kids in Ware & Dade Counties. I noticed Together Georgia’s map of members has a gap in Helena-McRae. Is there are reason for that? Just less foster kids there for some reason? While I love Atlanta as my home, I was intrigued to hear how Chatham County was drawing down more grants for foster care in that area. I’d love to hear more about their success and learn how it can be replicated.

Other questions I’d ask:

  • Are the state DFCS regions meaningful? Do they need to be adjusted from time to time? And if so, what triggers those adjustments? (Population change?)
  • What areas have higher DFCS caseworker turnover in our state? What sticks out?
  • How does recruitment work for DFCS in high-turnover areas?
  • What areas of the state have a higher need for foster families? Do we know why? 
  • Where do we retain better? Both DFCS caseworkers and families? Do we share their best practices? (There is a foster parent conference that is touted in Facebook groups. I have not yet attended, but look forward to learning more. There are also regular training opportunities and ongoing training hour requirements for foster parents once one is licensed. Those are available virtually, location specific to your region, and statewide locations.) 
  • What supports, particularly around mental health do we provide to DFCS caseworkers? What do they need more of? How often is this evaluated?
  • What does professional training and empowerment look like for DFCS caseworkers? Where can we improve?

I was particularly fascinated by a discussion in the meeting that centered around the state not having a risk assessment tool for children in care. Many lamented a lack of a central data source between the Juvenile Justice system and DFCS. I encourage the Georgia General Assembly to create a centralized data system as a model for other states- we have the data, we probably just have to aggregate it in a user-friendly way. That said, setting a system up like that probably also costs a pretty penny. Maybe Mike Dudgeon would consider lending the state some more of his time and expertise in shopping for a user-friendly system. Maybe?  

But brass tacks politics-wise, if Georgia can set the standard for other states, that’s a pretty feather to put in Kemp’s hat for that ‘26 Senate campaign, wouldn’t you say, dear reader?

There are risk assessment tools out there already. The Council of State Government’s Justice Center has one, but sadly I wasn’t able to find it before publication. Various other states use them. Heck, we use one for youth involved with DJJ. The Centers for Disease Control also uses an ACE score (Adverse Childhood Experiences) to determine indicators of resilience and trauma impact. I referenced this in my series on the Citizen Police Academy as well, as children with higher ACE Scores are often at risk for mental breaks and interactions with the judicial system. It’s my understanding from more experienced foster parents that license renewal involves using the ACE method as well. As I also said previously, an ACE Score should not be a determination- I have a high ACE score as do many friends. This means greater and earlier supports are necessary for kids to build resilience. The greatest impact on a child’s positive mental health is a positive relationship with at least one adult, according to my recent Youth Mental Health First Aid Training, from the National Council on Mental Health (as offered by Cobb Collaborative). You can think of ACE scores and risk assessments as tools to indicate gaps where things are needed. 

This latter point sounds easy, but like Judge Whitfield and Judge Carolyn Altman, Vice Chair CJCJ Dependency Committee, wisely asserted to the Committee- an attorney for every child is great; how do we pay for that? Georgia could vastly increase its spending on public defenders and hire significantly more. As a state, we seem to recognize physical abuse as trauma, but somehow not the experience of poverty. This is so weird to me. The presenters seemed to dance around this fact, saying that most children come into care, not because of abuse or neglect, but because of lack of services. 

Can we ask ourselves, why? Why are the services so lacking in our state that we’re willing to cede so many children from their parents’ homes into state care? 

Poverty and neglect are often difficult to separate.

Some might assert that it’s a scalability challenge due to how spread out some parts of the state are. Ok. Please see my above questions referencing how foster care works in Dade and Ware Counties. Where does a parent go in Echols? Or Taliaferro? Does anyone remember the story of the mother who dropped her developmentally disabled son off at Grady? Even in Atlanta, this mom didn’t have the supports she needed to maintain his care AND WAS WILLING TO TURN HER CHILD OVER TO THE STATE in our capital city because she was at her wit’s end!?!

Shame not on her, but on us- those of us who endeavor with policy solutions that render no aid and all performance. 

To prevent something like the latter from happening again, the Council of State Government’s Roger Moore (no known relationship to 007), highlighted New Jersey’s Mobile Response and Stabilization Service Project (MRSS) as a model of crisis response. Ironically, it seemed no one in the meeting was aware that Georgia already has this service for adults, through the Dept. of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. This is a contracted mobile response team that addresses behavioral health issues that arise and can be engaged in a crisis by calling the crisis line. Here’s a handy little flyer for you to print out and place in your wallet. Here’s the guide to read over in your leisure, dear reader. 

When the legislature finishes contemplating how to improve adoption, I hope it will turn its attention to DBHDD next. Let’s hope its answer won’t be to send kids on the spectrum to Milledgeville, as my grandmother used to threaten, although that might improve the preservation efforts/interest of Central State groups

The last presentation of the first meeting was with a virtual presenter from Virginia. Amy Atkinson, Executive Director of Virginia’s Youth Commission brought a great deal of information on what Virginia is doing. Of particular note, the Commission is housed within the legislative branch and is chaired by legislators. I was particularly interested in Virginia’s compiling of Foster Care 101. While Georgia has multiple county Youth Commissions, patterned after their lawmaking adult counterparts, our state doesn’t seem to have a statewide Youth Commission, and certainly not one housed within the legislature. 

Maybe this is our opportunity?

Dare I say, might it be an even better idea than making Georgia the most affordable place for adoption in the state? 

Again, If we want to spin our government wheels/tax money farming out poor kids to affluent families, then ok. Can’t we just say we’re using government funds to privatize adoptions? I mean, we’re already trying to subsidize private education, so public subsidy of adoptions seems like a reasonable next step in our ever-expanding class divide. But can we avoid doing what our neighbors to the south did
Me? I guess I’m old-fashioned, and believe that children should stay with their families or fictive kin (fancy term for that Aunt you always call Auntie but isn’t related to you). That’s why I’m a resource/partnership parent, and I know that the children who come into my care (as a part of DFCS’s mission) will hopefully be reunified with their families. Why are we not updating our systems, and retaining and professionally developing our DFCS employees instead of trying to insert the government into the family home to not only remove but ship off children in our state to more affluent families that have little resemblance to the child’s own culture?

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