When children are unable to remain safely at home with their parents or guardians, a state’s child welfare agency must step in and place the children in a home where they can be protected from abuse and/or neglect. For the past five years, Georgia has seen a substantial increase in the number of children who have come to the agency’s attention and need such a placement. This increase in children being removed from their homes, and placed into foster care has resulted in a shortage of foster homes.
Considering this increase in youth and the need for homes, it should be asked why some Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) staff feel it can afford to take a dismissive attitude with foster parents, both in court and out in the world.
The agency cited that the reason for the foster home closures were not due to substantiated abuse or neglect, but due to the families being “not willing to partner with the agency.” As the leader of an organization that helps to support these parents, I can tell you that is far from the truth. The following are three recent cases, from the same county, where DFCS was either indifferent to the perspective of their own foster parents, or punitive in their reaction to those families.
All three families felt they had legitimate concerns that the dependency court judge was only being presented with skewed facts of the cases, and not an accurate representation of all parties involved, especially where the children’s permanency was concerned. Foster parents are not considered parties to a dependency case, but they do have the right to speak in court to update the judge on how the child is doing in their home, as well as how they are adjusting. More than once, these families asked DFCS’ Special Assistant Attorney General (SAAG) if they could speak during hearings, and each time they were denied the right, per the agency’s directive.
The grievances were filed, and meetings were held. One grievance was filed over the agency not providing a case plan to the foster family. The family asked numerous times for a copy of the plan so that they were aware of the agency’s goals in the case.
Sadly, even after a grievance was filed, and the family met with the agency, no further information was given to the foster family. The agency made the foster family feel that no matter how hard they advocated for the children in their home, the agency was ultimately going to do as they saw fit, whether or not it traumatized the children once again.
This particular case stands out because the foster parents pleaded with the agency to allow the mother some extra time after completing her six-month substance abuse rehabilitation program to work on her recovery outside of an inpatient facility before returning the children to her. The foster parents’ fear was that the mother may quickly become overwhelmed with not only her children, but with juggling her job, and bills and finding housing and the stressors of everyday life that may cause the mother to relapse.
The agency was very upset with the foster parent’s stance against reunification taking place the same day the mother completed her inpatient treatment, and immediately placed the 6-year-old and 1-year-old back with their mother. Sadly, only two months after being reunified, the mother relapsed, and the children were removed, and placed in a new foster home, just as the previous foster parents had predicted and tried to prevent.
Those foster parents have since closed themselves off to new placements.
Another foster mom recently filed a grievance against the agency after receiving a phone call from her caseworker telling her to not come and pick up the children from daycare or school because they were all being removed from her home that day. A teen who had been placed in this home, already three months pregnant, had recently given birth. The teen asked permission from the foster parent for her and her 3-week-old infant to celebrate New Year’s with her new boyfriend.
The foster parent denied the teen’s request due to the temperature dropping on this particular evening, and because the infant had just been seen by the pediatrician earlier that week. Around 2 a.m., the foster mother realized the teen and her newborn had run away. Law enforcement and DFCS were called to inform them of the situation.
Once the teen and her newborn were located, the teen allegedly provided the agency with a voice recording of the foster parent allegedly cursing at children. The following day, the agency had every child in the home removed without any explanation. The foster parent, even to this date, has not heard the supposed recording.
This removal was another trauma for each of the children. This removal was not brought back in front of the court, because in Georgia, judges do not have authority over what specific foster care placement children go to – DFCS does. This means that the agency can place and move children at their own discretion.
This particular foster mother hired her own private attorney to persuade the courts to place at least one of the children back with her, a teenager who was stable for the first time in her 12 years spent in and out of the state’s child welfare system. It took this foster mother almost nine months, but the court finally agreed to allow the foster mother to have guardianship over the teen.
During the months that the foster mother was fighting for her in court, the child was placed in two separate placements, one being a group home where the child was sent to crisis stabilization due to her anger outbursts. All of this trauma could have been avoided had the agency done their due diligence during the initial investigation, instead they removed children and closed a loving, safe foster home. The foster mother should have at least been able to plead her case in front of a judge.
Another foster home in the county was actually closed by DFCS due to the foster parents not agreeing with the decision that DFCS made to remove a teen from their home and put her in a group home for vague apparent reasons. The parents report DFCS providing the reason that, “We feel this child needs a higher level of care than you can give her.”
This foster home was the 14-year-old’s twelfth foster care placement. This child had not been in trouble at home or school in the time she had been with this family. The child begged her caseworker to allow her to stay. The foster family filed a grievance because according to Georgia’s child welfare policy, a child cannot be removed from their placement while an active grievance is pending an outcome.
Without warning, DFCS came and took the child and moved her to a group home two hours away from her support systems, school, siblings and family. When the county supervisor was questioned by the foster father as to why he allowed his caseworker to break policy and procedure by removing the child during the grievance process, he responded by saying that he felt the foster parents were not giving the child her medications correctly, thus making their home unsafe for the child.
That reason was hard for the foster parent to accept, considering that when the caseworker came to move the teen, she left all the child’s medications at the foster home.
This child’s case was brought before the court a month after the removal. The judge was presented with limited information on the case by the agency, and the circumstances surrounding the child’s removal from a stable foster home. The foster family was present, but not allowed to speak. In addition to this, the child was supposed to be transported to the court hearing since policy states that at 14 years old, a child has the right to participate in all court proceeds.
The child begged her caseworker to arrange transportation to the hearing. It was never arranged, and even though the child told her court appointed special advocate and attorney that she wanted to be at the hearing, they waived the child’s rights to be present in court.
After the teen was moved, DFCS cut off the foster parents from receiving children in the future.
Foster parents are not required to take an active role in the court process for the children in their care, and judges are not required to heed their input. But in a state that is desperate to keep foster homes and recruit new ones, it is unconscionable to ignore these families when they want to be heard.
Leah Delanoy is the founder of Uphold Psalm 82.3, an organization dedicated to training and supporting foster and adoptive parents in Georgia.
This story is a part of a Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.