Experts link foster care failures to child sex trafficking

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Georgia youths in the custody of the state’s foster care system are disproportionately likely to become victims of child sex trafficking, several experts in the subject testified Monday.

Between 2018 and last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 2,400 reports of children missing from foster care in Georgia involving 1,790 children, many of whom went missing several times throughout the year, Samantha Sahl, supervisor of the national nonprofit’s Child Sex Trafficking Recovery Services Team, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee at a hearing in Atlanta.

Of those missing children, 410 were identified as likely child sex trafficking victims, she said.

Sahl and other witnesses blamed the trend on children who run away from horrendous conditions they suffer in foster care settings resulting from systemic failures by the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS).

“We know we have an urgent issue when children feel better on the streets or with a trafficker than they do in their foster-care placements,” Sahl said.

Monday’s hearing on conditions in Georgia’s foster care system was the third in the last two weeks held by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. At the first hearing, Ossoff revealed the results of a DFCS internal audit that showed the agency failed in 84% of cases brought to its attention to address risks and safety concerns.

The second hearing as well as Monday’s testimony focused on the number of children under DFCS supervision who end up missing.

DFCS officials responded to the first two hearings with a letter accusing the subcommittee of failing to request information or responses from DFCS in advance of the hearings and charging the panel’s investigation has been political in nature.

On Monday, Brian Atkinson, a staff lawyer with The Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic at the University of Georgia’s School of Law, said his experience shows entry into Georgia’s foster care system puts children at risk of being trafficked.

“If a child’s caregiver, family, friends, communities, and the state fail to provide for their basic needs of food, shelter, safety, security, love, their survival instincts kick in and they search for other ways to have those needs met, heightening their risk of landing straight in the hands of traffickers,” he said.

Tiffani McLean-Camp, 19, gave personal testimony Monday of her experiences when she entered foster care at age 15 after being physically abused by adoptive parents and sexually abused by a family friend. She said the abuse continued while she was moved to various placements 20 times.

McLean-Camp said one of those placements was in a facility with a gate surrounded by barbed wire. where she was physically abused and overmedicated.

“It felt like being in prison,” she said. “It made me feel like an animal locked up in a cage.”

After she became pregnant and her son was born prematurely, McLean-Camp said she and her infant son were separated at times and then placed in an emergency shelter where she got no attention for post-partum depression or physical complications from her pregnancy.

She said she got no visits from her DFCS case manager and received no help from the agency.

“I had to learn everything on my own,” she said. “I had to teach myself.”

“No child should have to go through the experiences you have survived,” Ossoff told McLean-Camp following her testimony.

Atkinson said he believes the foster care system has made progress in embracing the concept of treating children who fall prey to sex trafficking as victims and not criminals. But he said too many victims still are cast in a negative light, which makes them less likely to get the help they need.

“When our clients reach out to DFCS, they’re met with disbelief, dismissiveness, and often no response at all,” he said.

U.S. Senate panel hears tragic stories from Georgia’s foster care system

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – The mother of a murdered two-year-old girl and a young woman neglected and abused in Georgia’s foster-care system described their tragic experiences Wednesday to a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

The Senate’s Human Rights Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., launched a bipartisan investigation eight months ago into the treatment of foster children in the United States. The probe included a review of audits conducted by the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS).

Among its findings was a previously undisclosed internal audit this year that revealed DFCS failed in 84% of cases brought to the agency’s attention to address risks and safety concerns.

“What we have learned is happening to children in the state’s care and in the care of state agencies across the country is heartbreaking,” Ossoff said. “Instead of safety, too many children have experienced neglect, abuse, apathy, humiliation.”

Rachel Aldridge of Georgia told the subcommittee about the death of her two-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, after DFCS had placed her in the care of her father’s live-in girlfriend against Aldridge’s wishes. She suspected the girlfriend of using methamphetamine and believed she was dangerous.

Brooklyn subsequently died of blunt trauma to the head, and the girlfriend was convicted of murder.

“The system designed to protect children failed Brooklyn at every level,” Aldridge said. “Brooklyn would still be alive today if anyone at DFCS had been willing to listen to me, her mother.”

Mon’a Houston of Savannah testified about the five years she spent in foster care, which included 18 placements, only two of which were in foster homes. She said she was overmedicated because DFCS caseworkers believed she was a behavior problem, put in restraints, and placed in isolation three times.

“I felt alone,” she said. “I was overmedicated to the point of feeling overtired and sluggish. It hurt to walk.”

Two expert witnesses told the subcommittee the failures at DFCS are not the fault of individual caseworkers but rather are systemic.

“We don’t give case managers the tools they need and don’t listen enough to children and their families,” said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law.

“I have witnessed a system that fails on a daily basis to protect the wellbeing, health, and safety of children and instead violates their civil and human rights,” added Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic at the University of Georgia law school.

“DFCS’ overarching structure, internal policies, and administrative barriers obstruct {caseworkers’} good work, and when that happens, our clients experience extreme harm.”

Ossoff said the subcommittee’s investigation remains ongoing.

“It is imperative that this work spur the long-overdue reform necessary both at the state level and in federal policy to protect America’s most vulnerable children,” he said.

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.