Friday, June 15, 2012

Updated: Atlanta foster care system still struggles to meet federal benchmarks

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2012 at 12:49 PM

More than seven years after a lawsuit brought the child welfare system in metro Atlanta under federal oversight, officials have failed to meet numerous benchmarks set to ensure a safe environment and positive outcomes for foster children in the state's dependency system.

The most recent federal monitoring report, out today and obtained by CL in advance, shows that Georgia's Department of Human Services (which oversees DFCS, the state organization tasked with investigating child abuse and neglect) made little to no progress in improving the system in the last six months of 2011.

"The most significant achievement was the adoptions of 31 children within 12 months of their becoming legally free for adoption," the report said. "In almost every other area, there was neither a significant improvement nor a serious decline."

"This is one outcome in particular we're very pleased about," Carol Hall, Kenny A. Director with the DHS, said about the rise in adoption rates.

"We have a number of plans already in place and underway in areas we need to improve," Hall said. "We can see a number of strategies in place are working, but we'll continue to look at those we can make sure we improve."

The state and DHS have made a number of improvements over the years, meeting roughly two thirds of the 29 performance areas slated for improvement, with some "outcomes" (as they're called) fluctuating above and below acceptable levels from one monitoring period to the next.

"When we brought the legal challenge to Georgia in 2002 it was one of the most dangerous foster care systems we had ever seen," Ira Lustbader, Associate Director of Children's Rights in New York — the organization that brought the lawsuit against Georgia's foster care system back in 2002 — told me when I reported on this issue a few months ago.

"On balance, this is a good report but still shows some serious concerns," Lustbader said in a phone interview. "Faster adoptions, stronger oversight over foster homes, and making sure workers visit foster homes frequently are important, notable improvements — but there's still a ways to go."

But the state is trying, according to the bi-annual reports filed since 2006. The federal monitors charged with overseeing DHS's performance commended the department's attention to two safety issues identified in the previous report: ensuring allegations of maltreatment are handled properly and initiating maltreatment-in-care investigations in a timely manner.

"Although progress has been observed on the former (the proper handling of maltreatment allegations), the latter appears to have stagnated at a level below the compliance threshold," the report said.

You may remember, a joint investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News earlier this year unearthed an increase in the number of children deaths that had come in contact with DFCS within the last five years. Nearly three-dozen children with such a history died within a 10-week period between Dec. 1, 2011 and Feb. 12, 2012, about 40 percent of the yearly average.

At the time, child advocates voiced their concern that the department was not investigating allegations of abuse properly — an issue mirrored in the previous federal monitoring report looking at the first six months of 2011.

The latest report, which splits the period covered by the AJC investigation, showed a 57 percent increase in confirmed instances of maltreatment and similar increases in the number of investigations into allegations of abuse during the second half of 2011 compared with the previous six-month period — unprecedented numbers since the start of federal oversight.

"The true anomaly was the relatively small number of investigations completed in Period 11 (the first six months of 2011), compared to which the Period 12 data," the report said. "Although there may have been additional forces at work, a major reason for the relatively small number of investigations completed in Period 11 appears to have been changes in the way the "screening-out" of maltreatment-in-care reports was practiced over the most recent four reporting periods."

DHS officials said their policy around "screening" — the process of evaluating whether reports of abuse and neglect warrant investigation — hadn't changed.

"One of the things that happened that contributed to the increase in period 12 is that we did learn from some of the instances outlined in period 11, so we've done more investigations in period 12," said Laurence Nelson, DHS Kenny A. Data Administer.

Sarah Morrison, a Senior Associate at Center for the Study of Social Policy and one of the two federal monitors overseeing DHS's performance, said whether the actual policy changed or not, DHS seemed to be paying greater attention to the screening process.

"That's still something that they still need to stay on top of," Morrison said. "We think that things were appropriately being screened in period 12."

"We're going to continue looking at each and every outcome: whether we made it or whether we didn't make it," Hall said. "We want to continue the ones we're achieving and then we want to take a look at the ones that need improvements."

For his part, Lustbader said Children's Rights will continue to "maintain an aggressive watchdog role" as the process continues.

Both the DHS and authors of the report were unavailable at the time of publication, but we'll update as soon as we hear back.

Updated: June 18, 2012

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