Opinion: Former foster child says DFCS should be last resort

Imagine your earliest memories as a child were your mother and father behaved differently than your friends’ parents. They didn’t care for you like they should. They had a drug or alcohol problem.

Perhaps the happiest day of your life was when mom or dad said they wanted to get help for what troubled them. But instead of joy, this event turned to terror. As they went off to treatment, strangers barged into your home and took you away instead of sending you to a grandparent or other relative.

Unfortunately, some children have been neglected and abused by their parents and immediate action is necessary by the state Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS). In other cases it is not.

The trauma from being taken from your home as a young child or teenager creates psychological damage that resembles post-traumatic stress disorder. It leaves a scar with a child for the rest of his life.

It certainly did for me.

That’s why if Georgia can find an alternative route for parents who have issues and sincerely want to get help, then legislation now before the General Assembly could keep families intact and create incentives for parents to work on their sobriety.

House Bill 159, now before the Georgia Legislature, is best known for its revision to the state adoption code. But it also includes an important new provision found in 41 states that allows parents, through a power of attorney, to give temporary guardianship to relatives or other qualified adults for up to one year.

This important language — known as the Supporting and Strengthening Safe Families Act — also allows non-profits and churches to recruit volunteer foster parents who can step in as temporary guardians and care for these children right in their own communities.

When children are taken into foster care, they are usually placed in the care of paid guardians who are complete strangers. In most counties in Georgia, there aren’t enough foster parents available to care for these children. As a result, siblings are split up or children are shipped to live with guardians far away – sometimes hundreds of miles from home, school, church, relatives and other support systems.

As of December 2017, 14,000 Georgia children were in DFCS custody – a number that is steadily on the rise due to the opioid crisis.

Nonprofits and churches are uniquely qualified to assist with the growing number of foster children at no cost to the state. To prevent children from ever winding up in state custody, they can offer family counseling, drug rehab and financial assistance when parents are out of work. But under traditional foster care, churches that provide foster parents are not allowed to assist biological parents – a link that needs repairing with this legislation.

No child ever wants to become a ward of the state. And this proposal to extend a power of attorney will not work for cases of abuse or neglect. But the state will save millions of dollars it currently spends on children in DFCS if it can rely on relatives or the faith community to step in when drug addicted parents truly want help.

I will always be thankful that DFCS was there for me 50 years ago. However, if that little boy had a choice to have his mother work with church volunteers versus being placed in a government system, there is no doubt I would have rather had the former. Government can never take the place of a parent or loving relative.

As a former foster child, I can say it’s time for those of us who have lived in dysfunctional homes to speak out for these 14,000 Georgia children. They have been removed from the little stability they have left in their lives.

As we saw in the State of the Union, President Trump highlighted how those in our community will step up to help these children if given the opportunity. The president commended a New Mexico police officer and his wife for convincing a pregnant drug addict living on the streets to allow them to take custody of, and then adopt, her unborn child. The mother is now in treatment and working on her sobriety.

New Mexico law allowed the mother to give the policeman and his wife temporary custody until the adoption was finalized without oversight by DFCS. If the same policeman and his wife lived in Georgia, this temporary custody — which led to an adoption — may have never happened.

I appreciate Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s leadership and support from the Georgia House in passing the Supporting and Strengthening Safe Families Act. They recognize that government is not always the solution to our foster care challenges, and DFCS should always be the last resort.

Richard L. Jackson, chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare of Alpharetta, was removed from his mother’s care at age 13 and remained in foster care until a young adult.

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