Georgia officials entered an agreement Monday that provides a pathway out of a decade-old court order that has cost the state millions to revamp a failing child protection system.
The agreement marks a milestone in a class action lawsuit filed when the state system for abused and neglected children was in shambles. That 2002 case focused on foster children in Fulton and DeKalb counties, where caseloads were through the roof and many children lived in dirty, overcrowded shelters that exposed them to violence, sexual assault and illicit drugs.
State child protection officials settled the case, called the Kenny A. lawsuit, in 2005 by agreeing to a formidable set of court-ordered mandates and monitoring. This latest agreement, approved Monday by a federal judge in Atlanta, acknowledged the state’s improvement and the system’s increasing stability.
“The fact that we are preparing to exit Kenny A. today is a testament to the hard work of our staff” and the support of state leaders, said Bobby Cagle, who took the reins of the state Division of Family and Children Services in 2014. “The key thing is that we will be able to control our own destiny as an agency.”
Still, Cagle acknowledged that two to four years may pass before the state is free of court oversight. The state must do more work to reduce caseloads, stabilize a front-line staff plagued by high turnover, and phase out the use of hotels to house foster children.
Once released, the state can then direct certain monies that had been spent on the lawsuit to better the lives of foster children across the state, he said.
The new agreement comes at a time of increasing challenges for the state child protection system, which has seen a significant increase in the number of children entering foster care. The number of foster children has risen from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,266 in October of this year.
That’s a 75 percent increase that officials attribute in part to a new centralized call-in system. Some advocates also point to the increasing abuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, which lead some addicted parents to neglect their children.
The explosive rise in foster children has contributed to a severe shortage of foster homes.
For all that, officials with the advocacy group that brought the lawsuit, Children’s Rights, said they see DFCS moving in the right direction with the right leadership. A lack of leadership over the years — some 10 directors over 10 years — hampered the agency’s efforts to meet the court-ordered criteria for improvement, they say.
“Director Cagle’s strong leadership, combined with proper resources, is the mix that will really improve things for kids and families,” said Ira Lustbader of Children’s Rights, a New York-based group that has brought similar lawsuits across the country.
The state has already made strides in reducing caseloads, improving response times to allegations of abuse, and ensuring that foster kids are kept healthier and safer, he said. The shelters in Fulton and DeKalb were shut down in 2003.
The new agreement modifies several of the 31 performance measures set for the agency in 2005, some of which have become outdated and others that proved too difficult to meet and maintain. Over the years, the state has been unable to shake itself free from the court mandate, and has spent some $12 million on legal fees associated with the case, Cagle said.
“Certain measures were statistically impossible to achieve,” Cagle said. “They needed to be more realistic.”
Lustbader, of Children’s Rights, said he is confident that the state, once released from the court agreement, will not revert to its troubled ways. He said the agreement will put in place an infrastructure that will sustain it.
Because the court order was isolated to Fulton and DeKalb counties, state officials poached resources from the rest of the state, according to a 2012 analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The state shift of money and manpower created a two-tiered system, with children in Fulton and DeKalb guaranteed more benefits and attention than in the other 157 counties.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she believes the state has made enough progress to where it can move toward exiting the court order. She wants to see some of the money spent on tracking, experts and lawyers used to help children in the system.
She also wants to see the extra money that has been going to Fulton and DeKalb redistributed to help other children around the state.
“I think this is a very good move,” she said. “I’d like to see the spending equalized around the state.”