Again this year, The Chronicle of Social Change has done a good job of highlighting how our foster care system is working (or not working) across the United States.
In Georgia, we’ve been pleased to see improvements in the number of licensed foster homes available and especially in the number of children and youth in state custody placed with relatives, the latter figure up from 17 percent in 2011 to around 30 percent today. We are also encouraged to see that over the past few years, we have slowly decreased our use of congregate care and have reduced the number of children in unpaid placements.
In my role as a state child welfare agency director, The Chronicle’s annual data on these issues raises three important questions.
How’d We Get Here?
Georgia’s improvements have a solid provenance: the work of my predecessor, Bobby Cagle, and former Gov. Nathan Deal’s Child Welfare Reform Commission. Georgia’s General Assembly has over the past several years boosted payments to both foster parents and relative caregivers, encouraging more families to foster and enabling more relatives to take in their kin who cannot be kept safe in their own homes. Just this past year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a budget increasing our payment to relative caregivers by $1 per day, bringing the relative caregiver subsidy close to licensed foster care rates. And we continue to encourage relative caregivers to become licensed foster parents to obtain the full per diem rate available as well as the full spectrum of services available to foster parents.
Our boost in foster care capacity, in my experience, has come from our strengthened collaboration with private foster care agencies and especially with our faith communities. Currently, about half of our children in non-relative care are placed with private-agency homes. Many of those are affiliated with a faith-based organization.
Perhaps even more importantly, many of our foster parents are supported by faith-based nonprofits that have formed in recent years to provide a supportive community for foster parents and relative caregivers. These services are provided to all foster parents. These groups have surrounded our foster parents with “care teams” offering babysitting, date nights, support groups, meal and laundry services, and other efforts to support and encourage our foster caregivers. As volunteers in these organizations have learned more about the child welfare system, many have become foster parents.
Do these numbers matter, and if so, why?
Increasing foster care capacity and relative placements or reducing congregate care matter not a whit unless they are part of a larger plan. In Georgia, our work is done in pursuit of a larger theme: that the state’s primary role is to support parents raising children, extended family supporting parents, and the local community supporting families in need.
This approach is aligned with our efforts to promote the Family First Prevention Services Act, and its goal of keeping children with their parents or extended family whenever possible.
Our efforts are also aligned with a deeper theme: that of recognizing the child’s right to secure attachments and relationships as central to our work. The evidence is clear that children fare better when they have a solid, trustworthy parent on whom they can rely. If that parent is not in a position to be reliable, we have an obligation to the child to either help the parent become reliable or to find someone else on whom the child can rely, preferably someone with whom the child already has a strong relationship.
By focusing on keeping the child with family, or at least in his or her own community, we can ensure that no child has to suffer the combined traumas of being removed from his or her parents, family, friends, neighborhood, school, faith community or familiar routines and extracurricular activities. The child has the right to be raised by his or her own family in a familiar community where the child can build and maintain relationships with friends, teachers, coaches and supportive adults.
It is for these reasons, and not for any issues of federal or state policy or practice, that increasing relative placements, decreasing group care (which is often far away from the child’s home), and increasing foster care capacity is important.
Focusing on these principles has also helped us to reduce our foster care population from a high of almost 15,000 two years ago to just over 13,000 today.
What Should Be Our Metrics Around Foster Care Capacity?
All of this means that in the next annual review, The Chronicle should consider some additional measures. What we want for our children and youth is not simply enough foster parents, but enough foster parents who are experienced in dealing with a variety of issues children present and who are close to the child’s community of origin.
It means ensuring that a foster home is equipped to address each child’s level of need, which in itself requires that we assess the child’s level of need. To achieve close, appropriate placements, we in Georgia are developing a number of measures to determine just how good of a job we’re doing at keeping children in an appropriate placement as close to their homes as possible. Here are four of them …
Kinship Placements: In Georgia, we’re tracking both the percentage of children placed with kin and fictive kin as well, and we are challenging ourselves to bring as many of those placements as possible into full foster care licensure. In our work, we’ve found we have high numbers of placements that are not blood relatives of the child but who rather had existing strong relationships with the child that had formed prior to our involvement.
Foster Care Stability: Over the past year, more than 53 percent of children and youth in Georgia’s foster care system have been in one placement during their first 12 months in care, up from 40 percent in 2016. We know that stable placements are both an indication of appropriate placements, as well as representative of the stability in relationships that a child needs.
Our goal is to reduce placement moves as much as possible, and we have recently launched a “placement stability review team” to provide support to placements that are at risk of disruption. We’ve also increased the number of children adopted from their foster placement from less than 15 percent in 2015 to almost 20 percent this past year.
Keeping Children in Their Communities: Having enough foster homes is not sufficient; rather, we must have sufficient homes in the communities from which we are removing children. We are tracking how far children are placed from their home communities, and Georgia has done an especially good job of keeping children close to their home communities in the Atlanta metro area. Keeping a child or youth close to home is not only good for the child – it’s also good for our bottom line, as we have lower travel and transportation costs, and our job of reuniting families and ensuring sibling and parent visits becomes much easier. Recently, we have worked with our private foster providers to develop local foster homes by creating “heat maps” showing the areas of the state in which a child is more likely to be placed outside of his or her own county.
Additionally, if we are truly to focus on the child’s right to be with family and community, we must also ensure we encourage “partnership parenting” in which our foster caregivers serve as mentors and role models for birth parents.
Levels of Care: Unlike some states, Georgia does not have certified therapeutic or treatment foster care homes available across the state. As a result, children needing more intensive care, especially for behavioral and developmental needs, are often placed in institutional settings far from their community of origin. Georgia DFCS is working closely with other state agencies and private providers to create a more appropriate system in which children with significant needs can receive the support they need close to their own communities.
Next year, I’d invite The Chronicle to evaluate us, and our colleagues across the nation, on how we are doing not only in our numbers of homes, but also in their ability to keep children in the most appropriate setting close to their own communities.
Tom Rawlings is the director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services