The Cost of a Misspent Youth: A Rounding Error for City of Atlanta Funds

The legislative session now long behind us and campaign season in full swing with primary early voting drawing to a close, I thought readers might appreciate a follow up to the foster series I covered earlier this year. Although legislation did come of the exercise, as a foster parent, I can’t personally tell any difference. Perhaps that’s just me, yet I would encourage any legislative member to inquire with their district to find if the study committee made any difference at all in the lives of parents across our state. This lackluster result leads me to question if the Georgia legislature is interested in doing anything to reduce challenges for our citizens or if we just prefer federal intervention over state sovereignty. It seems the DOJ may have adopted Delta’s motto: They’re ready when you are, only instead of flying to Disney World, the U.S. Senate is telling us to either stop putting kids in prison, stop evading our responsibility to developmentally disabled children, or stop racially targeting people in the voting process– take your pick! 

I’m personally not that patient, so here’s a brief list of things I’d recommend for legislators to consider for future sessions regarding foster reform:

  1. Standardization of Georgia’s medical records, record requests, and defining in terms of days the maximum time for provision of records. I would suggest 14 days-not business days- from the date of the request.
  2. Better partnership with other states on public records. I don’t know which part of this holds us up the most, but updates to the process wouldn’t hurt anyone. Perhaps even an expansion of the role for the Interstate Compact for the placement of Children to cover data exchange.
  3. A work permit process that enables a work around for children in foster care to have required documentation for work. If they are in care, the state’s left hand should be able to accept the state’s right hand saying the child is able to work legally. 

For my family, we’re on our child’s fourth caseworker since June 2023. This last one was impressive and (as expected) didn’t stick with the Dept. for a full six months. I’d also like to offer public praise for my and my husband’s case manager, Ms. Barbara Hill-Huff, who responds to every text, phone call, and email and is often is far more helpful because of her experience than I have found many others to be. I have found her to be more responsive to recent outreach than Commissioner Broce and the consistent combination of late arrival and lack of responsiveness I’ve found in our assigned Education Specialist, who has never met FK and whose opinion in meetings has run contrary to every other person in education with whom our child actually interacts. 

May the urgency she lacks in her responsiveness in her job find her in retirement.

In October, we were asked if we wanted to move to guardianship, with this year beginning with a strong push from DFCS. Guardianship is the legal in-between stage of stewarding a child, where the child moves from DFCS’ custody and financial responsibility to more of our responsibility. Ultimately, my husband and I intend to adopt our foster child (FK), and have said so repeatedly to FK, the Department, judge(s), the Guardian Ad Litem, and Child Attorney. My husband and I have repeatedly asked each of these individuals at what point we can adopt FK and FK’s current benefits remain. FK’s GAL, not DFCS, has identified that FK must remain in DFCS care for 2 full years before FK can be adopted and continue to receive the benefits FK needs to make up for several years of neglect. 

I have asked for the above to be put into writing from DFCS since October of last year. 

Yet DFCS is not the sole challenge of documentation. Far from it. 

FK remains without medical records. In order to be cleared for sports at school, after months of my husband and DFCS requesting the medical records from all medical facilities kiddo could recall, I personally drove to retrieve said records from a pediatric hospitalization FK had experienced before coming to our home. Only after making the 5 hour round trip for this sole purpose was I provided the documentation, at my own cost. I think this might be a good time to point out this facility’s parent, a $5.5 billion not-for-profit hospital system in FY2020, has a diminished reputation. I’m no expert on this, but based on his series of posts on the matter, I’d bet Grumpy Old Man is. But I was only able to retrieve records from one facility. FK was first admitted at another facility, but because they had a fungal problem (I kid you not), was taken to the pediatric location. Because I could only request the records via phone (even while standing in their waiting room) I was given a link to make an online request. While on my adventure, I went to the residential location where kiddo lived for months, filled out request forms requesting all of FK’s medical records from that place as well. I spoke to a person at the front desk and offered to leave my credit card number for whatever charges may arise.

I have never even received a call back. 

Commissioner Broce and I have spoken of the challenges kiddo has identified in the residential location so that hopefully what kiddo experienced isn’t experienced by other children. It seems the Dept. of Public Health isn’t as watchful of these locations as they could be. My bet is in the next decade or so, if kids like mine unify, the state of Georgia may have a class action lawsuit on its hands due to egregious neglect from allowing places like this to continue to operate. From what I’ve learned of kiddo’s experience, I hope these children are given literal matches and burn it to the ground so that it may be a beacon to any in Georgia who considers mistreating or neglecting children.

In the meantime, I’m trying to get kiddo’s birth certificate. 

You see, kiddo wants some spending money for the summer and has been talking about getting a job as soon as school ends. Kiddo’s been talking about this since kiddo arrived in our house. We appreciate FK’s ambition and independence and after scoring MVP in sports and making Honor Roll, who are we to stand in this kid’s way? 

I’ve heard Mayor Andre Dickens has a great summer youth program. (Let no one say I’ve never praised the man.) I have a neighbor whose son participated in it last year. It was promoted heavily this year at school and at the last PTSA meeting kiddo, my husband, and I all attended. FK tried to fill out the form then and there. Seventeen dollars an hour to be paid to earn certifications? I’ve told every kid I know about it and all have jumped at the chance.

Unfortunately, the State of Georgia won’t let Mayor Dickens be great because in order for FK to get a work permit, we have to have an official certified copy of FK’s birth certificate. Now if I homeschooled FK, I could email in the texted photo of FK’s birth certificate from FK’s parent along with a home study of their home school. Alas, FK is penalized as a child in regular ‘ol public school and must produce a certified copy. Don’t believe me, read GDOL’s instructions yourself to see if I’ve missed anything. FK was born in a city several states away and FK cannot request FK’s own records until FK is 18. We tried (twice), using Vitalchek, but although we have a Social Security Card, without that state issued ID promised in SB 387 (which goes into effect on June 1, two days before kiddo could, in theory, start working) I cannot pay to retrieve the records myself. I cannot request the records as a foster parent or else yours truly would have already flown to the physical building just as I did the pediatric location previously. (I am rather tenacious.) DFCS can request them, and has since January of this year, but here we are, all waiting for DFCS to get their documentation ducks in a row so FK can schedule an interview. FK’s parent said a certified copy was in their possession, but somehow that hasn’t made it to DFCS yet and the copy given to FK appears to be a photocopy, it lacks any seal/stamp and “VOID COPY” is easily seen in the reproduction. 

Now, I thought this workforce challenge was the main reason why SB 387 was created. In the foster and adoption Senate Committee hearings, a photo ID was suggested as a means to provide foster children with a photo ID to enable them to apply for jobs. I supported this and wrote about it favorably. Understandably, kids below the age of 16 require extra documentation, and we are grateful to not be Alabama, Arkansas, or Missouri. I hope it’s an agreed upon norm that none of us want underage children to be working without the proper oversight, right? 

But if you can find anywhere in that bill (now Act) that says photo ID can stand in for birth certificates and Social Security numbers, then I’m happy to treat you to your next cocktail.

‘But how did you register FK for school if you didn’t have these documents?’

A 1990 amendment to the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act mandated that homeless children be able to attend school even when prior educational records and verification of residency are unavailable. So thankfully, kiddo can remain focused on lettering in shit and maintaining the Honor Roll, while I worry about the educational records that should have followed kiddo to my home. 

But from what I can tell, there is no current work around for foster kids for a work permit, which seems kind of dumb to me. I mean, it’s the state talking to itself in the form of one agency to another to let a City Mayor hire some kids for a few weeks in school. 

So let’s look at the numbers: 

There’s about 11,000 kids in foster care in Georgia. 629 kids were in care in Fulton County between Oct. 2022 and Sept. 30, 2023. FK is part of this cohort.  I’m sure not every kid in this cohort of care is residing in Atlanta, but I’m betting it’s more than half, right? But for the purposes of my exercise, I’ll say 50% or 314 of those kids are in the City of Atlanta. Now let’s say 60% of those kids are 14 or older. I have no idea the real number. Maybe it’s two, but I’m going to use a higher number here to give some idea of how many we *might* be discussing. That’s 189 (I rounded up, no King Solomon splitting babies here) kids. Now, I feel like that’s a manageable number for the City of Atlanta to teach and employ from June 3 to July 15th. Maybe I’m wrong, but for budget numbers, that’s $17/hr x 20 hours/ week x 6 weeks. That’s $2,040 to get a few kids in the foster system better job-ready in the City of Atlanta. That’s a low enough number I can write the Mayor a personal check. Hell, the whole cohort is probably just a rounding error of the misspent funds at the city. Where’s Pete Aman when you need him?

However, the impact it has on the foster system – 189/11,000 kids is 1.7%. A 2% impact on a system as large as foster care in Georgia isn’t something I’d sneeze about. 

Aside from the job readiness aspect of making these changes, what about the impacts of incarceration of youth in foster care? From the Georgetown Journal:

Children in foster care are much more likely than their peers to become involved in the criminal justice system.[18] An estimated 25% of foster care children will become involved with the criminal system within two years of leaving care,[19] and over half of youth in care experience an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay at a correctional facility by age seventeen.[20] For children who have been moved through multiple placements, the risk is even higher, with one study indicating that over 90% of foster youth who move five or more times will end up in the juvenile justice system.[21] Children placed in group homes are also much more likely to become involved in the justice system than children placed in an actual foster home.[22] The correlation between foster care and criminal involvement is strong enough that advocates refer to this criminalization of children as the foster care-to-prison pipeline.[23]

Can I accurately predict that making these changes (which are undoubtedly more complicated than I’m presenting them) will positively impact reducing the care-to-prison pipeline? No, but wouldn’t it be worth at least trying? And imagine if Mayors across the state of Georgia do this? Could we have a bigger impact? Remember Governor Deal’s last state of the state address and the best time to plant a tree? He was talking about the criminal justice system. He saw reform was necessary in both adoption and the criminal justice system and I think we should build on that, not tear it apart.

Now the only thing standing in the way is Commissioner Broce and Commissioner Thompson need to have a little sit down with Mayor Dickens to iron out the details and  maybe do a trial run. A pilot program, if you will. Atlanta Influences Everything, so why not let it influence employment, job readiness, and upward mobility of the most vulnerable in the state? The failures of Georgia DFCS have already screwed FK’s chances, but why should it continue to fail other Georgia children?

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