The State of Foster Care:
A White Paper on the crisis in Hall County, Georgia
Mark Mobley – SAFFT
Brian Anderson – SAFFT
A crisis in Hall County foster care, most directly illustrated by a lack of homes, initiated a meeting called by Chief Hall County Juvenile Court Judge, the Honorable Lindsey Burton. Over 70 people representing various agencies and organizations gathered for a discussion on “The State of Foster Care in Hall County.” Two major themes emerged: the lack of homes in the county and the resulting fact that the majority of foster children are placed out of county. These facts lead to more trauma for the children in care and a reduced chance of reunification. Present challenges were discussed, along with the resources and opportunities that are available now. Direct action steps that can lead to ameliorating the crisis are proposed, along with a mechanism to keep the disparate group focused on the goals.
On November 30, 2017, a group of stakeholders gathered to discuss the state of foster care in Hall County. The impetus for the gathering was an insufficient number of local foster homes to care for the children in crisis in our County. Present were the Juvenile Court Judges and staff for Hall County, the Department of Family and Children services Hall County and Regional leadership, representatives of several private Child Placement Agencies, several local non-profits, Church leaders, and individual stakeholders. Chief Hall County Juvenile Court Judge, the Honorable Lindsey Burton, facilitated the discussion.
The first major theme that emerged was the lack of homes available for foster children in Hall County. From 2013 to 2017, the number of children in foster care from Hall County grew from 173 to 274, an increase of 58%. Currently there are approximately 60 approved foster homes in Hall County. Half of these homes are Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) approved homes. The rest of the homes are approved and supported by private Child Placement Agencies (CPA). As of the date of the stakeholders meeting, there were only 4 open beds in the County.
The second major theme of the discussion directly follows from the first: the majority of foster children from Hall County have out-of-county placements. (Also, many of the existing foster homes in Hall house out-of- county children from other areas.) This creates multiple issues for the children in care and the agencies who are tasked with their welfare. Some of the issues are as follows:
1. Out-of-county placement almost assures that the trauma of removal will be amplified by a disruption in the important relationships in a child’s life. The children will not only be removed from their primary caregiver’s home but will also be removed from contact with their extended family, neighborhood friends, and possibly siblings. Most likely, the result will be removal from their school and its accompanying support system. Because it can sever daily contact with almost every important relationship in a child’s life, out-of-county placement has the potential to be the most traumatic type of removal that a child can suffer.
2. Out-of-county placement drives up the costs of services for the child and family. Transportation costs for court appearances and supervised visits increase because of the distance, leaving fewer budgetary dollars for more therapeutic services. Case Managers from DFCS spend more time on the road to conduct visits instead of working the case, decreasing capacity for the Department, which in turn requires more funding dollars to adequately staff cases.
3. Out-of-county placement and the transportation required to return the child to Hall County for Court or supervised visitation creates a time cost which results in scheduling issues. One-way trips can take from 30 minutes up to a reported 41⁄2 hours for some South Georgia placements. In order to attend court, a child in care often misses an entire day of school. Since we know that children who are in foster care are already at risk for poor educational performance, our inability to place them in-county amplifies their struggle.
4. The time cost factors into supervised visitation, a key element in reunification and reducing trauma. Children placed out-of-county have a smaller window for visitation because of the onstraints imposed by the time required to transport to and from the visit. For biological parents and foster parents who are working and children who are in school, these limitations can make scheduling a visit difficult. Coordinating availability for foster parents, biological parents, transporters, and visitation monitors can be a daunting task. Often, these visits (if they occur) cost a child sleep on a school night, further reducing academic performance.
From the facts that were presented, one glaring conclusion emerged: Hall County needs more foster homes that are dedicated to keeping children close to home and school. Of course, simple answers that have not been accomplished often have multiple underlying mitigating factors that make solving the problem more difficult than it sounds. Some of the factors raised in the discussion are as follows:
1. A large number (but not all) of the children placed out-of-county have special needs, Currently, there are very few homes in Hall County that are qualified to care for these needs, so the children are placed in the closest county that has a qualified home.
2. Other special circumstances, such as trying not to split sibling groups or one child not matching the preferred ages of a foster home, keeps foster children from fitting into available local homes.
3. Removal and placement are time-sensitive activities, necessitating finding the closest qualifying foster home, even if it is out-of-county.
4. There is a high turnover rate for foster homes. Some of the turnover is the natural result of foster children being adopted and closing a home successfully, while other homes close due to the stressful nature of being a foster parent.
5. Hall County has a uniquely large Hispanic population that adds language and cultural complexity to the existing set of problems.
6. Recruitment, qualification, training, and approval for new foster homes can take four months or longer.
While the current number of existing foster homes and work needed to create new, viable homes while outstripping the turnover rate can be discouraging, several unique, positive opportunities came out of the summit that make changing the equation possible in Hall County:
1. The Juvenile Court Judges of Hall County are engaged with the community to help solve the problem.
2. The Hall County office of DFCS is engaged with the community through a local board.
3. Several established, private Child Placement Agencies that are already working in Hall County with the resources to ramp up recruitment.
4. Multiple local non-profits that are already providing support to foster families.
5. An ongoing Foster Care Coalition Luncheon monthly meeting that brings together stakeholders in the foster care space.
6. Several large churches and many medium-sized and smaller churches that could provide access to significant groups of potential foster families.
Like every other significant problem, solving the foster care crisis in Hall County will require focused, sustained effort. However, the needs of these children and families require action. The research is clear that the futures of these children are at significant risk economically, physically, and emotionally from the trauma that they suffer. They need for a group of committed citizens to create an environment that maximizes their chance for success. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
It is the recommendation of this body that the following action steps:
1. DFCS and CPAs should strategically and aggressively recruit new foster families in Hall County, preferably that accept only in-county placements. They should intentionally seek homes that can accommodate special circumstance children, such as large sibling groups, behavioral issues, medically fragile children, and teens. They should leverage the Juvenile Court Judges in their efforts and take advantage of the strength of local churches.
The numerical goal for recruitment should exceed the number of children in care because of following factors:
a. Excess special circumstance homes are needed for immediate and stable in-county placement.
b. The number of children in care has grown exponentially over the last 5 years and simply reaching the current number leaves future growth unaccounted for.
c. Foster families experience secondary traumatic stress and need time and attention to recoup, adjust, and prepare for new placements in order to maintain the current foster home population.
2. A coalition of non-profits should develop and build infrastructure to maintain and promote a foster family support system, including (but not limited to) an online resource referral portal, FAQs for basic foster family issues (i.e. Reimbursement guidelines), a list of local medical professionals that accept
Amerigroup, local foster family training, and a timely information distribution tool (such as an email list or phone app for Hall County foster families).
Currently offered services include:
a. Initial placement meals for the family
b. Clothing for the foster child
c. Free Car seats and bike helmets
d. Sports Scholarships
f. Free/reduced price summer camps g. Free Swimming lessons
h. Support groups
i. Parents Night Out/Events
Needs were expressed for:
a. Therapists for young children
c. Cross-cultural resources
d. Respite/Child Care
e. Free Lice Treatment
f. Free/reduced price CPR/First Aid training
g. Foster Parent Training
h. A list of Doctors/Optometrists/Dentists who accept Amerigroup
i. A CAPS process “cheat sheet”
j. Foster Family Vacation support
k. Free/Reduced price septic service
l. Foster Care reimbursement guidelines “cheat sheet”
m. A Foster Parent “Crisis Line” for advice/resource help
n. An online portal for foster care resources in the Hall County area
3. All agencies and non-profits focus on developing Spanish-speaking/bi-lingual services.
4. A coalition of volunteers that can translate forms and resource guides into Spanish and help providers connect to the local Hispanic community.
5. A discussion with City and County officials about increasing the Social Services budgets. The increase in county population and children foster care should be reflected by adequate resources to serve these at- risk children.
6. In order to focus on and accomplish these goals, we submit that they should be discussed, updates given, and action steps developed as a consistent agenda item at the monthly Hall County Foster Care Coalition meeting.
It is the belief of this body that future of these children and the effects of inaction on our collective destiny require immediate, focused, and sustained effort. We also believe that the resources and leadership are uniquely in place to accomplish these goals and demonstrate a process to change outcomes across the State of Georgia.