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Opinion

Georgia child welfare agency defensive after Ossoff Senate panel reports neglect and exploitation

Credit: iStock

by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
April 10, 2024

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services consistently fails to protect children from abuse, and mismanagement at the division is “a key contributor” to child deaths and serious injuries, according to a U.S. Senate report released Tuesday. DFCS called the allegations “unfounded and irresponsible.”

“The most vulnerable children in our state and in our nation must be protected from physical abuse, from sexual abuse, and from human trafficking,” said Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, who led the investigation along with Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. “We cannot and must not look away from these findings, though they are deeply distressing. We cannot accept the abuse, the trafficking, and the preventable death of children. I thank my Subcommittee staff and the more than 100 witnesses whose hard work and courage has brought these facts to the public.”

The investigation, launched in February 2023, also found evidence that more than 400 children in state custody were likely sex trafficked over a five-year span, while nearly 2,000 were reported missing during the same time; Georgia’s Department of Human Services leadership, which oversees DFCS, recommended prolonging foster childrens’ stays in juvenile detention because they didn’t have enough placements; DFCS “consistently fails to meet children’s mental and physical health needs,” including by overprescribing psychotropic drugs to children. The report says the DHS has not adequately responded to reports of previous failures and is seeking to weaken oversight by taking over the federally-mandated panels which review the division.

The report says the division experiences high turnover rates as employees struggle to keep up with high caseloads, but that many employees are afraid they will be retaliated against if they speak out.

The child welfare agency responded to the 64-page report Tuesday with an 11-page report of its own, characterizing the findings as a partisan hatchet job that mischaracterizes statistics and ignores the division’s improvements.

“After taking months to produce a report – written and supported solely by staff of the majority party – the subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law provided DFCS and the state only two days to respond to a heavily redacted version of the final report. Highlighting Sen. Ossoff’s staff’s obvious lack of subject matter expertise regarding complex child welfare issues, the subcommittee’s report omits key context, ignores relevant data that undermine the report’s primary assertions, and takes great lengths to misrepresent DFCS actions, facts about various cases, and outcomes for many children in the state’s care,” said DHS spokeswoman Kylie Winton in a statement.

The DFCS response includes data in which the Georgia agency outperforms the national average, including the rate at which children are the subject of a second credible report of maltreatment in a year, the rate of reported maltreatment for children under court jurisdiction and the rate at which children in foster care experience moves in their placement.

“Not included in the subcommittee’s report are DFCS’s improvements in addressing the issue of hoteling, strengthening rigorous safeguards for the children in our care, and streamlining service delivery,” the statement continues. “Our staff and leadership take our responsibility to Georgia’s at-risk youth with the utmost seriousness and will continue to identify and implement solutions that better serve those in our care. We encourage Sen. Ossoff to focus his efforts on putting the welfare of children above political gamesmanship.”

Kids in need

Ossoff’s report cites a spring 2023 audit that found DFCS failed to properly assess and address safety concerns in 84% of cases reviewed, the worst rate in the past seven years.

Emma Hetherington, a University of Georgia clinical associate professor and the director of the UGA Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation legal clinic, or CEASE, which represents victims of child sexual abuse, said for the children she represents, failing to address safety concerns often means kids, especially teens, are not being believed when they speak up.

“The child’s voice and the child’s own words and reports and experiences are dismissed,” said Hetherington, who also testified to the subcommittee.

“It’s sort of a, ‘eh, we got that report, but, you know, they’re just saying that because they were mad about something,’” she said. “They’re fine. And this attitude, this, ‘Oh, well, they’re older, so they’re less vulnerable,’ which in some respects is true, but if you completely fail to respond at all, then you’re actually increasing their vulnerability.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children testified that nearly 2,000 children in DFCS care were reported missing between 2018 and 2022, with at least 410 of those children likely trafficked.

For most victims, child sex trafficking doesn’t look like a stranger looking to kidnap children, Hetherington said. Most children who end up being trafficked were sexually abused when they were younger or were already vulnerable in other ways.

“They don’t have a safe place to sleep at night. They have inadequate clothing, food, shelter, their basic needs, they are not getting appropriate medical care or their education has been neglected,” she said. “They’re a very, very high vulnerability at this point to be preyed upon due to the need for basic things. So you could have a child that runs away from home and someone says, ‘Hey, I’ll give you a ride if you perform this sex act,’ and that is trafficking. It’s not kids being snatched in the night and being trafficked, that’s not typically what we see.”

Hetherington said children dealing with abuse often display problem behaviors and can be written off as simply unruly, promiscuous or angry, which can exacerbate the problem of kids going unheard when they advocate for themselves.

Failure to address safety concerns

The Senate committee document outlines several gruesome stories in which a lack of action preceded the death of a child in state custody.

In one 2023 case, DFCS noted that a background check on foster parents did not reveal their child protective service or criminal histories. The family had “a documented history of using inappropriate corporal punishment against children in their care, and a previous DFCS directive prohibited the placement of non-verbal children in the home because they could not report potential abuse or neglect.”

But the division did place a nonverbal toddler with the foster family, which ultimately killed her.

In another case, investigators said a grandmother reported to DFCS that her grandchild’s mother was suffering from mental illness and referred to one of her children as the devil. Rather than performing a safety assessment in accordance with policy, DFCS requested law enforcement perform a wellness check.

“Based upon the wellness check, allegations of abuse were deemed unsubstantiated, and the case was closed,” the report reads. “The child was killed approximately five months later, when the mother set fire to the home.”

According to the report, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services placed DFCS on an improvement plan in 2017 “to address failures to meet federal safety standards, among other deficiencies,” and HHS fined the division in 2020 for failing to meet some of the plan’s requirements. But even after being fined by HHS, DFCS’ performance on federal safety metrics continued to decline, according to the report.

The state agency says Ossoff’s office cherry picked and incorrectly interpreted statistics to produce the 84% figure, noting that DFCS has appealed the fine and that none of the states that have participated in the federal program that lead to the improvement plan have met federal standards.

Failure to meet medical needs

Ossoff’s report also cites a spring 2023 DFCS audit into federal health care standards that the document says that children in the agency’s care received adequate services for their physical health in only 40% of cases and received adequate care in mental and behavioral health in only 13% of cases reviewed.

The state human services department says its Medicaid provider, Amerigroup, often denies coverage for medically necessary services for foster children and that the department often covers the cost of medical services and appeals denials of coverage.

Both statements ring true for Hetherington, who said many of her clients struggle for a long time to obtain basic services like a visit to the dentist for a toothache.

“Then all of a sudden, once they finally do go to the dentist, the dentist says, ‘Well, we have to pull it because Amerigroup isn’t gonna pay for a root canal,’” she said. “So now I’m dealing with a teenager who’s having to get teeth pulled. I mean, I think any adult would be upset by not being able to get a cap or something like that to replace it, and it’s really devastating for them. There’s already so much low self esteem going on when you’re in foster care, and then you add these things to it that could have been prevented.”

“The state takes a child away from their parents, typically for reasons of neglect, sometimes abuse, but often neglect, and then the State neglects them,” she added.

In particular, the report alleges DFCS does not adequately monitor the administration of psychotropic drugs to children, and as a result, some children are being overmedicated.

Hetherington said the children she works with are often prescribed powerful medications for conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia when their real issues are with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve had clients on lithium before, children on lithium,” she said. “You see what the side effects of those medications are, whether they become zombie-like, whether, some of these psychotropic medications for teenagers are very dangerous and increase suicidal ideation and and can increase anxiety and things like that.”

Recommendations

Ossoff’s report ends with seven recommendations for DFCS, Georgia the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Congress that the subcommittee hopes will help prevent future tragedies.

Hetherington said she hopes the report will bring about new policies at the division

“I just really hope that they take this as an opportunity to be reflective, to really look internally and externally,” she said. “I hope that what comes out of this is not just immediately going on defense, not pointing fingers at everyone else, but actually saying ‘Well, what can we do?’ I think it’s really important here to recognize these are kids. We’re talking about children and our children’s lives and health and safety, and what matters so much more is those kids rather than our egos or us feeling upset if someone says we did a bad job.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence.

This story is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.