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Friday, December 21, 2012

Atlanta foster system improves adoption rates, struggles with other benchmarks

Metro Atlanta's child welfare system has steadily boosted adoption rates in recent months, a federal monitoring report released earlier this week says, but continues to struggle with meeting several federal benchmarks set to ensure that kids in foster care grow up in safe environments and result in positive outcomes.

While adoption rates have improved, Georgia's Department of Human Services - which oversees the Division of Children and Family Services (DFCS) and the state's child welfare system - made little to no overall progress in improving Fulton and DeKalb counties' foster system in the first six months of 2012.

"A significant achievement was the adoptions of 43 children within 12 months of their becoming legally free for adoption," the report says. "In almost every other area, there was neither a significant improvement nor serious decline that could be attributed to practice changes."

"We call ourselves 'barrier busters,'" the DHS' Carol Hall says about the task force launched last year aimed at speeding up adoptions. "We look at whatever barriers are preventing a timely finalization of a child's adoption and figure out how to eliminate that barrier."

Hall is the director of the department's Kenny A. program. Named after the lead plaintiff in a 2002 class action law suite brought against the state, the Kenny A. decree mandated DHS improve performance in 31 specific areas and assigned federal monitors to track the progress, among other things. Since the system came under federal oversight in 2005, the state has made substantial progress, meeting roughly two-thirds of those requirements. Yet it has largely stalled over the most recent 12 months covered by the Kenny A. reports, from June 2011 to June 2012. Some "outcomes" continue to fluctuate above and below acceptable levels from one monitoring period to the next.

"I think they (DHS) have sustained a lot of the improvements they've made, like moving children quicker toward adoption when they can't return home and helping siblings stay connected," says Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children's Rights, the New York-based organization that filed suit against Georgia's child welfare system.

"There's a lot to be proud of in these reform efforts," Lustbader says. "But there's some major holes in the system that still need to be addressed."

Chief among the concerns is the steady increase in the size of DFCS managers' caseloads over the most recent 12 months analyzed by the reports. The rise may be attributed, at least in part, as an unintended side effect of DHS' efforts to eliminate furlough days by delaying the hiring process, which created a shortage of DFCS investigators, according to the report.

Laurence Nelson, who manages Kenny A. data for DHS, said the agency has already taken steps to address the issue by streamlining the hiring process and putting more control in the hands of individual counties. But whether the shortage is temporary, and if DHS is likely to exit federal oversight anytime soon, remains to be seen.

Like most state agencies, DHS has seen its budget slashed substantially in recent years. The department now operates on about 50 percent of the funds it had available in fiscal year 2009.

"It's a crisis," Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Policy and Budget Institute, says about the funding cuts to state agencies. "At the same time as all of these cuts, Georgia's population keeps growing and demand [for state services] continues to rise."

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis earlier this year showed shrinking resources had already impacted DHS' and DFCS' ability to provide services to some children. By diverting funds to metro Atlanta in an effort to keep up with requirements under Kenny A., DFCS created a two-tier system in which metro Atlanta foster kids received a higher level of services than peers in other parts of the state.

When Children's Rights brought the class action lawsuit against DHS in 2002, Lustbader said Georgia's child welfare system - and metro Atlanta's in particular - was one of the worst he'd ever encountered. Now, a decade later, the agency waits to see if the state can find the funding to amp up services to a level the feds deem acceptable.

DHS has not yet responded to specific questions about the department's budget, but we'll update as soon has we hear back.

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