From AJC archives: Foster care system two-tiered

» This story was first published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 13, 2012

Under court order to improve conditions for foster kids in Fulton and DeKalb counties, Georgia officials have poached resources from the rest of the state, an analysis of state data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

It's a shift of money and manpower that has created a two-tiered system, with children in Fulton and DeKalb guaranteed more benefits and attention than in the other 157 counties.

The state's top social services official, Department of Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reese, acknowledged some inequity.

"I think the short answer to that --- when you look at a finite number of dollars and people --- is yes, " Reese told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when asked if the Division of Family and Children Services had pulled resources from elsewhere in the state.

He said the agency has little choice in light of the 2005 court decree, which demands strict caseload limits and other protections for foster children in Fulton and DeKalb.

"I want to improve child welfare in 159 counties, not just two, " Reese said.

Data obtained by the AJC through open records requests show a dramatic pattern: Even after the recession hit, funding for Fulton and DeKalb remained stable, while other counties took substantial hits.

The region that includes Cobb and Cherokee saw its budget shrink by 36 percent; in Forsyth and Hall, the shrinkage was 24 percent; in Clayton, Henry and Fayette, 15 percent; in Gwinnett, 11 percent. (Before Reese was appointed last year, the agency was also taking on fewer cases, somewhat softening the impact of such budget cuts.)

Looking at staffing, Fulton and DeKalb have seen a combined increase of 6 percent in the number of caseworkers since the court order took effect. Meanwhile, the number of caseworkers in the rest of the state plummeted by 33 percent.

In Fulton and DeKalb, the average monthly caseload per worker is 8.53, the lowest in Georgia and well below the statewide average of 13.33, according to statistics from February. That's true even though the two large urban counties that encompass the city of Atlanta have the greatest number of open cases.

Those who pushed for the court order say it was never meant to bolster conditions for some foster kids at the expense of others.

"If the state is exposing children in the rest of the state to the same harm that children were facing in Atlanta when we filed our lawsuit, then they have got a real problem, " said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights. That New York-based nonprofit filed the class action lawsuit in 2002 that led to the order.

Fulton, DeKalb gains

The "Kenny A" decree — named for the lead plaintiff — set rigorous benchmarks and threatened officials with contempt of court if they failed to comply. Every six months, federal monitors make a compliance check.

In the ensuing years, the reports have documented declines in caseloads, instances of maltreatment among children in care, and kids re-entering the system.

The latest scorecard, which covers the first half of 2011, found that 99 percent of child protection case managers had appropriate caseloads, which the order defined as no more than 12. Some were carrying even fewer.

Compliance isn't perfect. Despite a mandate to investigate every report of abuse or neglect of a foster child, some were still screened out, monitors found. Foster children didn't always get required health checkups on time. And only 67 percent of children made available for adoption were adopted within one year. The target is 80 percent.

Still, it's a far cry from the turbulent landscape of 2002, when Children's Rights demonstrated in court that foster kids in Fulton and DeKalb were in jeopardy, and that DFCS was at fault.

At the time, the state foster care offices in these two counties were bursting at the seams with as many as 3,000 kids.

Some caseworkers were straining under the weight of 100 cases. Children languished for months in emergency shelters, where they often were exposed to violence and sexual assault, according to court documents. Some kids spent years in state custody and received scant access to health and education services.

After years of legal wrangling, Gov. Sonny Perdue, himself a foster parent, signed the 48-page Kenny A consent decree on behalf of the state. At one point he provided additional monies to flood DFCS with additional social workers.

Through a spokesman, Perdue declined to comment for this story.

Budget crunch

Now, the cries of pain are coming from the rural and suburban counties. In many of those areas, professionals responsible for children's safety report rising caseloads and scraping for basic services, such as transportation for children to visit counselors or for drug testing for parents accused of neglect or abuse.

"This is a crisis situation, " said Juvenile Court Judge John Sumner of Cherokee County, where he said DFCS' budget has not kept pace with the county's surging population.

Ava Lipscomb, program director of the Bartow County office that assigns volunteer advocates for children in the system, said her county's DFCS office is so short-staffed that volunteers sometimes help caseworkers locate and screen relatives of abused or neglected children who need a safe place to live.

Caseworkers "don't get to do as good a job because they are so stressed, " she said.

That's a far cry from Fulton and DeKalb, said lawyer Diana Rugh Johnson, who represents parents dealing with DFCS.

"In Fulton and DeKalb counties, if they want it, they will make it happen, " Rugh Johnson said. For example, she said, the state is quick to order parents to undergo psychiatric evaluations, at a cost to DFCS of about $900 apiece.

Fulton County also has a staff of 20 lawyers representing children, up from just four in 2002, when the caseload was far larger. Attempts to guarantee similar legal representation for foster children elsewhere in the state was included this year in a proposed rewrite of the state's juvenile code. The projected cost of those services was one factor that scuttled the bill in the legislative session that recently ended.

Double standard

Some who have been involved with DFCS over the years say they have long suspected a disparity.

"There has always been Atlanta and the rest of the state, " said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a longtime advocate for children's issues, said it could take another lawsuit to ensure that the rest of Georgia's children are treated the same as those already under the protection of the courts.

"I've always thought another lawsuit was possible. ... I believe the courts are a necessary avenue for results, " said the Democrat from Decatur. "And what we are looking at is simple: The children in Fulton and DeKalb receive more benefits, "

Still, some see statewide benefits from the Kenny A lawsuit.

Michelle Barclay, assistant director of the child, families and courts section of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Kenny A lawsuit — and a federal audit that happened at about the same time — has helped improve the DFCS system statewide.

"The lawsuit itself drew change, " Barclay said. "We have seen the numbers improve and the agency's transparency."

In any case, Reese, the state DHS commissioner, said he hopes to move the state out from under the Kenny A decree as soon as he can. But in order to do so, the state must meet all the benchmarks for 18 consecutive months. He called the decree "onerous."

"It's not a document that I would have signed, " he said.

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