On October 25, 2023, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law held a hearing entitled, “the Human Rights of Foster Children.” In February, following reports that children in the care of Georgia’s Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) have been subjected to abuse and neglect, Subcommittee Chairman Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Ranking Member Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) launched a bipartisan inquiry to assess the safety of children in the system. This hearing was the first public hearing of the investigation and two panels of witnesses provided testimony about their experiences with DCFS in Georgia.

Chairman Ossoff opened the hearing by talking about the hearing and outlining some of the issues the Subcommittee has uncovered. Ranking Member Blackburn used her opening remarks to highlight improvements made by Tennessee’s child welfare agency and to speak specifically to the issue of human trafficking of children and youth with child welfare involvement.

The first panel consisted of two experts with lived experience in the child welfare system. Ms. Rachel Aldridge spoke about losing her daughter, Brooklyn, when she was removed from her care at two years old and placed with her father and his girlfriend, who was later convicted of her murder. Ms. Aldridge shared several instances where her wishes and information were ignored, highlighting a failure of the agency to listen to her and involve her in the decision-making. Ms. Mon’a Houston was previously in foster care in the state of Georgia; over her 5 years in care, she had 18 different placements, only two of which were family foster homes. She shared her negative experiences in residential care and that she was pushed to sign herself out of care shortly after her release from jail on her eighteenth birthday, with no support and far from home.

Members of the committee offered their appreciation and gratitude for the witnesses’ testimony, asking questions about their experiences and attempting to tease out mistakes and bad decisions made by DFCS in each of their cases. Chairman Ossoff noted that Ms. Aldridge had the right to object to the placement of her daughter, but she was not notified of that right. Ranking Member Blackburn asked Ms. Houston about the failures of her caseworkers to meet with her and give her support or help.

Senator Welch noted the lack of connections and friendships that Ms. Houston was able to form, given how frequently she was moved, while Senator Butler recognized that there are good caseworkers and advocates that can make a significant difference in the lives of parents and youth in foster care.

In the second panel, Professor Melissa Carter of the Emory Law Barton Child Law and Policy Center and Professor Emma Hetherington of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic talked about the systemic issues facing DFCS in Georgia. Professor Carter focused on the overall state of the child welfare agency and highlighted a number of issues, including the need to provide caseworkers with the tools necessary to effectively do their job and the need to meaningfully include parents and young people in the decision-making process. She also noted that Georgia should invest more in prevention to reduce the number of children and families. who ever need to experience the child welfare system.

Professor Hetherington focused on her clients, many of whom had been sexually abused, exploited, and trafficked. She shared that 100% of her clients experienced early childhood maltreatment, 74% made credible allegations of abuse/neglect against foster caregivers, only 17% were on track to graduate with their peers, and that only 5% of her clients who have exited foster care are now better off than when they entered. She fielded questions from the Subcommittee about the connection between foster care and human trafficking, as well as the need to better care for undocumented children and unaccompanied minors in state custody.

The hearing served as a starting point for the Subcommittee’s investigation, bringing to light the Subcommittee’s concerns about the treatment of children and families with child welfare involvement. There is a second hearing scheduled for Monday, October 30, at the Georgia State University College of Law titled, “Foster Children in the Courts,” to continue the investigation.