Roller-coaster ‘hoteling’ of Georgia foster children at record low

Candice Broce

ATLANTA – The state’s foster care system was “hoteling” only seven children as of Tuesday night, the head of the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) said Wednesday.

“Our providers stepped up because they want us to get to zero,” DHS Commissioner Candice Broce told members of a state Senate study committee looking for ways to improve Georgia’s foster care and adoption services. “We couldn’t have done this without them.”

Housing foster children in state offices or hotels came to the General Assembly’s attention during this year’s legislative session. The number of children affected has been on a roller coaster, falling to fewer than 20 last summer – a record low at the time – then soaring to 95 at the end of last month, Broce said.

Since then, the number has plummeted to a new record low of seven Tuesday night, a number that was expected to dip further to just five by Wednesday night, she said.

Lawmakers provided $10 million in the fiscal 2024 state budget to address the hoteling problem. The legislature also passed a bill establishing a uniform process for placing a child in the custody of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) on a “non-emergency basis” or absent “exceptional circumstances.”

Broce said a total of 1,000 to 1,500 foster children have been hoteled for at least one day. About half of those children entered the foster-care system to gain access to services, not because of abuse in the home, she said.

Families often don’t know how to navigate the red tape necessary to apply for services on their own, Broce said.

The DHS is working with DFCS to launch a pilot program in 58 counties to help families gain access to treatment and services.

“We’re certain we’re going to see an immediate improvement,” Broce said.

Samantha Walker, director of reunification and safety for DFCS, said the agency’s primary goal is to reunite children who have been removed from parental custody with their parents, as long as it’s safe to do so.

About 2,500 families were enrolled in the reunification program at the end of June, Walker said. The General Assembly allocated $2.4 million to the program during the last fiscal year.

Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, expressed disappointment that only 41% of the children who exited foster care in fiscal 2023 have returned to their homes.

But Dena Crim, a lawyer with the DFCS office in Cobb County, said some children have mental health and behavioral issues that prevent their being returned to their parents.

“Reunification is the goal,” she said. “But there just are some cases where reunification is not possible.”

Broce said while the number of children being hoteled is low for now, it’s always subject to going back up.

“Ultimately, we may get to zero when it comes to hoteling,” she said. “But there are children where we struggle to find the right place.”

The study committee will hold three more meetings this fall before making recommendations to the full Senate to consider during the 2024 legislative session beginning in January.

New nonprofit to help process foster care tax credits

ATLANTA – A new nonprofit has launched to help Georgians contribute to a state tax credit program aimed at helping young adults aging out of the foster care system.

Fostering Success Act Inc., named after legislation the General Assembly passed last year, will help taxpayers submit applications to the Georgia Department of Revenue to qualify for the program.

Individual taxpayers can receive dollar-for-dollar state income tax credits for up to $2,500 per year contributed to the program, while married couples filing jointly can receive up to $5,000. Corporate donations are limited to 10% of the company’s annual tax liability.

However, contributors may apply to exceed those limits under a change that has occurred because the program has not reached its $20 million cap. The legislation took effect in January with the beginning of the 2023 tax year.

About 700 young Georgians age out of the foster care system each year, most with no family to return to after they leave the system. Contributions to the tax credit program will be used for “wraparound” services – including housing, food, and transportation – to help support these young people while they attend college or technical school.

“This is a great opportunity for any Georgia taxpayer – individual or corporation – to designate where their tax dollars are spent,” said Heidi Carr, executive director of Fostering Success Act Inc. “Through the Fostering Success Act … we will be able to do more to reduce poverty, homelessness and despair than any program ever before.”

Applications to the revenue department are accepted on a first-come basis. Once approved, taxpayers have 60 days from the date of approval to send their contribution check or pay online.

State legislators take aim at foster care problems as U.S. Sen. Ossoff opens inquiry

Department of Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce speaks to a Senate committee about proposed changes that would help streamline Georgia’s child custody proceedings.

ATLANTA – The state legislature is considering bills to address the problems Georgia’s foster care system faces, including the practice of housing children in hotels or state offices when placements cannot be found.

“With the full weight of the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s leadership behind these efforts, we have a real opportunity to make lasting positive change for Georgia’s children,” Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Candice Broce told the Senate Committee on Children and Families this week.

A package of four Senate bills would streamline or expedite the process of making legal decisions about the transfer of children to state custody and adoption proceedings.

For example, one bill would allow doctors to testify without being present in person to ensure expert testimony can be provided within the quick timeframe needed for child custody proceedings.

“What we’re trying to do here is … get the law in sync with the time pressures that we have in these very important situations,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

Though the bills would not solve all of the foster-care problems in Georgia, they are aimed at making procedural changes as soon as possible, Ines Owens, policy and communications director for Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, told Capitol Beat this week. It’s likely the state will set up a task force or commission to examine the problem in more depth once the legislative session ends.

Georgia’s hoteling problem has drawn national attention, with U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., announcing Friday that he and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., are launching a bipartisan inquiry under the auspices of the U.S. Senate’s Human Rights Subcommittee, which Ossoff chairs.

Ossoff released a letter he and Blackburn sent to DHS requesting further information about departmental policies, the number of children living in hotels or office buildings, and staff vacancy rates.

While Ossoff’s focus is on Georgia, hoteling is a national problem, with many other states also using the practice for foster care children when placements cannot be found.

“We have received the letter, and we look forward to sharing our efforts to protect Georgia’s children,” said the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), the division of DHS that oversees foster care, in a statement issued in response to Ossoff’s letter.

Georgia’s hoteling problem is complicated by health-care failures and other stresses, experts have testified during legislative hearings this year.

Children who are not receiving adequate behavioral health services are very difficult to find placements for, Dr. Michelle Zeanah, a Statesboro pediatrician, told lawmakers in January.

“Who wants to sign up to take care of a child who fights and spits and hits all day every day?” Zeanah asked lawmakers. “It makes it very hard for the difficult children to be placed and get services.”

Such children often fail to get needed behavioral health services because of problems with Georgia’s foster-care insurer, Amerigroup, Zeanah and others said.

Georgia pays Amerigroup, which is owned by the large for-profit insurer Elevance (formerly Anthem), a monthly rate for each child insured by the company, whether or not children receive health-care services.

DFCS officials contend that Amerigroup routinely denies needed care for children in foster care. The problem has gotten so bad that DFCS has established its own in-house legal team to address the insurer’s denials.

“Every day, my office will review all medical treatment denials, and we will file appeals if we determine that such treatment is medically necessary for the child or the youth,” Brian Pettersson, the lawyer who leads the new team, told lawmakers in January.

By the end of last year, the DFCS legal team had filed, and won, 26 appeals against denials of placements for children in state custody in psychiatric residential treatment facilities. An additional 10 such appeals were pending as of December, according to a DFCS memo obtained by Capitol Beat News Service. DFCS plans to expand the program this year, according to the memo.

Other problems facing the agency are a lack of foster-care placements for children who need them and a shortage of caseworkers.

DFCS has an overall turnover rate of 30.3%, according to a fiscal 2022 workforce report published by the state’s Department of Administrative Services.

Starting pay for a DFCS caseworker is low, and the job comes with many stresses, from having to work after hours and transport children in personal vehicles to wrangling with the legal and health-care systems.

 “This is why our staff quit: We are here to protect children from their caregivers who may be maltreating them,” Audrey Brannen,  a complex care coordinator at DFCS, told lawmakers at the January hearing. “We cannot do that when so many of our resources, both staff and financial, are trying to plug the holes in our health-care system.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia foster-care officials blame ‘hoteling’ problem on health-care shortfalls

Former state official and foster parent Mike Dudgeon tells lawmakers about problems he faced navigating the state’s foster-care insurance plan.

ATLANTA –  A legislative hearing about the “hoteling” of foster children in Georgia zeroed in the problems children in state custody face in getting health care.  

So far this fiscal year, more than 400 children have spent the night in hotels or state offices because appropriate placements could not be found for them, Audrey Brannen, a complex care coordinator at the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) told lawmakers Wednesday.

The reasons behind the hoteling problem are complex, but one major contributor is lack of access to appropriate health care, Brannen said during the joint hearing convened by the state Senate’s newly created Children and Families Committee and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.  

“We are here to protect children from their caregivers who may be maltreating them,” she said. “We cannot do that when so many of our resources, both staff and financial, are trying to plug the holes in our health-care system. It’s like using your index finger to stop the leak on the Titanic.”  

Care coordination services for foster children are often lacking, Statesboro pediatrician Dr. Michelle Zeanah told lawmakers. She said she has a hard time getting information about a child’s needs and treatment history from Amerigroup, the state’s contracted insurance plan for children in foster care.  

Another problem is that many children who end up in hotels have autism, but there aren’t enough clinicians to diagnose and treat autism in Georgia and reimbursement rates for autism evaluation are too low. This leads to long waits for diagnoses and care, Zeanah said.

 “If we reimbursed providers that are serving children who are in foster care at a higher rate, then providers would be highly motivated to serve those children,” she said.

Zeanah also questioned whether contracting with a private insurance company really helps Georgia children and youth in foster care. Amerigroup is owned by Elevance, formerly known as Anthem, a large, for-profit company.  

“The goal of managed care is cost savings,” Zeanah said. “Why can’t foster children be started with the goal of creating access instead of the goal of reducing cost?”

Mike Dudgeon, a foster-care parent and a former policy director in the lieutenant governor’s office, echoed that call. He suggested returning health care of foster children to the older “fee-for-service” model, where the state pays directly for medical services, or putting foster children on the State Health Benefit Plan, which insures teachers and other state employees.  

“If it’s good enough for our employees, it should be good enough for our foster kids,” said Dudgeon, also a former state representative from Forsyth County.

Dudgeon noted that he and his wife sometimes paid for health-care services for children they were fostering out of their own pockets because they could not find a provider that accepted the Amerigroup plan.  

He said he had trouble getting data about the insurer’s financials and performance when he worked in state government.  

“We were stonewalled for months and months and months … and this is with the weight of the lieutenant governor’s office and the weight of the Senate Budget Office behind it,” Dudgeon said. “All I can tell you, there’s a lot of smoke there that this money is not being appropriately spent. … We need rabid transparency.” 

The problems around accessing health care for foster children have spurred DFCS to establish a special legal team dedicated to appealing insurance denials.  

“Every day, my office will review all medical treatment denials, and we will file appeals if we determine that such treatment is medically necessary for the child or the youth,” said Brian Pettersson, the lawyer who leads the new team.  

“Not only is the current system detrimental to the health-care needs of the foster children, but the current system does not benefit the citizens of the state of Georgia. … It increases [the Georgia Department of Human Services’] overall expenses that are used to expand and fill the gaps in coverages that taxpayers already paid for.” 

Representatives from Amerigroup, the insurance plan under fire, also testified.  

“We’ve been doing this since 2014,” Amerigroup President Mel Lindsey said. “I’ve never made a decision about how to treat anyone, particularly a foster-care kid, that was related to cost. And I never will.” 

Lindsey and other officials from Amerigroup said they want to improve the care they deliver, but there are some factors they cannot control, such as shortages of treatment facilities in Georgia.  

“We know there are opportunities for improvement in the system of care and certainly what we do as well,” Lindsay said. “We are deeply committed to working … to improve the way we serve.”  

“One thing that we have accomplished today is to raise awareness and to make sure that everybody understands this is a front-burner issue,” added Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R- Marietta, who chairs the Children and Families Committee. “These kids didn’t ask for this and they should be going to the front of the line, however we can get them there.”  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kemp signs bills to cut red tape for Georgia adoptions, protect foster kids

Gov. Brian Kemp signed several bills Monday to lower the age requirement for Georgia parents to adopt children from 25 to 21, create tuition waivers for foster kids to attend in-state universities and bolster legal protections for adopted children against abuse.

The six-bill package marked the latest move by Kemp and his allies in the General Assembly to cut red tape for Georgia families who wish to adopt children and help give older foster kids a leg up as they enter the working world.

During a bill-signing ceremony, Kemp highlighted improvements Georgia’s foster-care system has seen in recent years through an increase in adoptions that have reduced the number of foster kids in state care from about 15,000 children in March 2018 to roughly 12,000 as of this past January.

“By making it more affordable to adopt, reducing bureaucratic red tape and championing the safety of children across our state, we can ensure that Georgia’s children are placed in those homes in a secure and safer future for generations to come,” Kemp said Monday.

Legislative leaders including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan backed legislation to lower the age for parents to adopt children to 21 and allow foster and homeless children to obtain tuition waivers from the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia.

Kemp also signed legislation Monday to add more training for juvenile court officers, expand rules for parents under court-ordered alternatives care and require officials to report on a range of child-abuse treatment including abandonment, neglect, emotional abuse and exposure to chronic alcohol or drug use.

Additionally, Kemp signed bills to allow judges to issue arrest warrants for state foster-care workers, give courts more data on children in foster care and include a former foster child and current or former foster parents on the state Child Advocate Advisory Committee tasked with evaluating Georgia’s child-protective services.

Former state Rep. Burt Reeves, R-Marietta, one of Kemp’s floor leaders in the General Assembly who has pushed for adoption and foster-care legislation since 2015, said the newly signed bills add to other recent measures aimed at overhauling the foster-care system.

“Lives are being changed,” said Reeves, who resigned his seat in the state House of Representatives recently to take a job at Georgia Tech. “Forever homes are being created for children who have had the roughest and the most difficult pathway imaginable, and families are growing.”

Kemp signed separate legislation last month sponsored by Reeves to boost the annual tax credit for new foster parents from $2,000 to $6,000 annually for the first five years after adoption. He also signed a bill last year that prohibits foster parents from engaging in improper sexual behavior with children in their care, closing a loophole in state law.

Georgia lawmakers who joined Reeves in sponsoring the bills Kemp signed Monday included Sens. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton; Brian Strickland, R-McDonough; and Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia; and Reps. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton; and Katie Dempsey, R-Rome.