On October 30, 2023, the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law held a field hearing in Georgia entitled, “Foster Children in the Courts.” This hearing was the second one to be held in response to reports in February that children in the care of Georgia’s Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) have been subject to abuse and neglect. Subcommittee Chairman, Senator Jon Ossoff [D-GA] led the hearing and three Juvenile Court Judges from the state of Georgia provided testimony.

Chairman Ossoff [D-GA] provided the opening remarks, acknowledging the numerous complaints against DFCS from a variety of child advocacy centers and the systemic threats posed to the most vulnerable children, whom are often victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect.

The Honorable Carolyn Altman, Juvenile Court Judge for Paulding County Juvenile Court, highlighted three problematic trends she has witnessed within the system in her testimony. There is an overuse and misuse of safety resource plans, lack of adequate support for high mental health and special needs children, and an increase in family preservation cases where the family does not have access to the appropriate resources to meet the needs of the child. The Honorable Nhan-Ai Simms, Juvenile Court Judge for Gwinnett County Juvenile Court (Division I), provided testimony that there are cases being screened out of the system because a child has too many special needs, DFCS is not utilizing resources properly and misallocating them, caseworkers have overwhelming caseloads, and a shift in priorities of maintaining metrics over ensuring the safety of children. The Honorable Wenona Belton, Juvenile Court Judge at the Fulton County Juvenile Court called to a wide array of issues DFCS has not addressed, such as the delays in obtaining routine and specialized assessments, lack of appropriate placements for children with significant behavioral health challenges, and the burden being placed on children for misuse or no-use of resources.

The primary concern and questioning were framed around the DFCS Director & DHS Commissioner allegedly asking judges to consider placing children in detention facilities due to a lack of adequate placements. The witnesses testified about the harms of putting children into juvenile detention facilities and the negative impact detention can have on their well-being.

Senator Ossoff inquired about the public relations pressure DFCS has been under with a triage of cases and avoidance of taking on varying cases to boost their statistics. This may be due to a number of factors, particularly the high turnover rate for caseworkers and the need for more caseworkers to provide adequate services and resources to families.

Finally, the witnesses highlighted the reasonable efforts standard as being one of the only tools available to judges to protect children. Reasonable efforts are the efforts made by the caseworker to preserve and reunify families prior to placement of a child in foster care, to prevent or eliminate the need from removing a child from their home, and to make it possible for a child to return to their home safely (Judicial Perspective-Linked Below). If a judge finds that a reasonable effort has not been made, the agency can lose funding from the federal government. Judges utilize this tool to prioritize the safety and well-being of children, not to harm the agency itself. These rulings indicate a need for systemic reform that does not fall onto individual caseworkers but the child welfare system as a whole.

The Subcommittee held a third hearing, also in Georgia, on Monday, November 6, 2023, entitled, “Abuse in Foster Care: A Deeper Look.” This hearing covered a range of topics and issues, but primarily focused on the treatment of youth who have been identified as, or are suspected to be, victims of sex trafficking. Chairman Ossoff opened and conducted the entirety of the hearing, with no other members of the subcommittee present and asking questions of the witnesses.

Tiffani McLean-Camp, a nineteen-year-old in foster care in Georgia, opened the hearing as the first witness, sharing her experiences in the care of DFCS with the Subcommittee. Ms. McLean-Camp noted the lack of appropriate services and treatment she received, particularly in congregate care settings, during her four years in care, including lack of postpartum medical treatment after giving birth to her son. Her testimony highlighted numerous systemic issues: lack of appropriate placements, barriers to treatment and education, and the inability of caseworkers to effectively attend to the needs of the children and youth on their caseload.

The second panel included three expert witnesses that testified about the overlap of child welfare involvement and commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC) and trafficking. Dr. Samantha Sahl, Supervisor of Child Sex Trafficking Recovery Services Team for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), spoke to the requirements of the 2014 Preventing Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act to notify law enforcement and NCMEC of children missing from foster care, as well as NCMEC’s processes and procedures for identifying and serving children who have been trafficked.

Earnelle Winfrey, Deputy District Attorney, Special Victims Division, Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Unit in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, expounded on the connection between childhood sexual abuse and later exploitation through sex trafficking and called on DFCS to ensure that foster care placements have the training and tools needed to address the underlying trauma of the youth in their care. Finally, Brian Atkinson, Staff Attorney at the CEASE Clinic at University of Georgia School of Law, spoke about the need for DFCS to change the way in which it approaches youth who have been trafficked, shifting away from blame, and moving toward better supporting young people.

Chairman Ossoff asked Dr. Sahl what legislative recommendations she had to help address this issue; Dr. Sahl answered that the single most effective protective factor for youth in foster care is strong and stable relationships, which is not necessarily something that can be legislated. However, she also noted that there are experts in the child welfare field who could help provide solutions from their knowledge and first-hand experience inside the system.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law is continuing its investigation into Georgia DFCS. One theme that has emerged across all three hearings is a deep respect for the individual caseworkers on the front line of child welfare, who are under-resourced and over-burdened in their work with children and youth in foster care. There has been an understanding that these systemic issues cannot be addressed without also recognizing and alleviating the pressure and strain on the child welfare workforce.

By Harper Dilley, Policy Intern, and Kati Mapa, Director of Public Policy