Child’s death, other breakdowns raise questions for DFCS

State’s ombudsman found DFCS is beset by systemic issues; the agency denies the claims

Credit: Police records

Credit: Police records

In late November 2021, an anonymous caller left a frightening tip about 4-year-old Jayceion Mathis.

The boy and his sibling were not being fed or bathed, the caller said. Neither child had a bed to sleep in and Jayceion still wasn’t potty trained. A caseworker attempted to reach their mother in early December, but she wouldn’t answer phone calls or knocks on the door.

The caseworker didn’t revisit the case for several weeks. Soon after the caseworker tried to make contact again in late January, police discovered Jayceion’s remains near trees behind a Wendy’s restaurant in Cordele, south of Macon and near where he lived.

Jayceion’s mother has since been indicted on murder charges.

Jayceion’s death is a consequence of systemic failures that are plaguing the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), according to a memo sent in July by the state’s child welfare ombudsman and recently obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The memo written by the Office of the Child Advocate, or OCA, identifies 15 systemic breakdowns within DFCS and alleges its workers are no longer adequately responding to child abuse cases.

DFCS, an agency under the Department of Human Services, is responsible for investigating child abuse, and finding homes for neglected children.

“The lack of appropriate response and absence of documentation in these very serious cases is alarming,” wrote Jenifer L. Carreras, deputy director of the OCA.

DHS vehemently disagrees, saying that OCA failed to provide any evidence backing up its claim of widespread, systemic failures within DFCS that leave children in danger. According to an internal review conducted by DHS, there was “disturbing” mismanagement in Jayceion’s case and his death was an isolated tragedy.

“There’s no way to adequately convey how much this case weighs on my heart. It took a huge emotional toll, and I’ll never forget it for as long as I live,” DHS Commissioner Candice Broce said in a statement. She says she had first asked the OCA to investigate whether DFCS had properly handled the case.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted a months-long review of DFCS, obtaining hundreds of pages of public documents and speaking with industry experts who described a child welfare system in turmoil. Caseworkers at Georgia DFCS are leaving their jobs in droves, fueled by low pay, frustration with leadership, and exhaustion from increased workloads, according to state human resources reports.

Worsening the situation, sources say Broce has fired or pushed out some of the longest serving, highest ranking employees since she was appointed in 2021 as DHS commissioner and DFCS director. This exodus of knowledge has shattered an operation that was already fragile, according to one child welfare expert.

“Leadership matters, and we can see the volatility in the system mapped to leadership changes,” said Melissa Carter, who previously served as the state’s child welfare system ombudsman. “This leadership change is corresponding with one of the highest turnover rates in our field, and that kind of instability has all kinds of ramifications.”

Broce, an ally and former spokesperson for Gov. Brian Kemp, wouldn’t comment on the firing allegations. But she denies that there has been a large exodus of knowledge, pointing to multiple high ranking officials who are veterans.

“I’m not going to get into specific personnel matters,” she said in a statement. “We’ve had to make tough decisions to right wrongs, improve workforce morale, and fulfill our agency’s mission. Our leadership team is now more diverse, with both long-time veterans and fresh faces at the helm, working together – not in silos – and doing what’s right, even when no one is watching.”

An ‘ongoing threat’ to children

In early March, Amy Boney, the head of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia, sent an email to Broce asking her to meet.

Boney warned she had received “extremely concerning” reports from organizations that respond to child maltreatment allegations. The reports included cases where children died, according to a copy of the email that DHS shared with the AJC.

“You truly inherited significant systemic issues,” Boney wrote to Broce at the time. “However, I really feel we need to meet when you have an opportunity. The cases are getting worse, other investigative agencies are reaching their breaking point and I feel if we can all put our heads together we can avoid that pressure spewing out in the wrong way.”

Public records show state officials met with representatives from Children Advocacy Centers several times, starting in the fall of 2021, and internally reviewed their complaints. DHS officials found some areas for improvement, but said in many instances they had provided no evidence of the systemic failures.

In July, the OCA jumped into the fray with a scathing memo to top state officials. The memo described an “ongoing threat to the safety of child victims” of abuse. The memo, which is not final, said a review of the child advocacy centers’ concerns were necessary to “accelerate corrective action.”

The results were blunt and damning.

OCA said that DFCS failed to take adequate steps in responding to allegations of abuse in eight cases they reviewed. Details of those cases were not made public. In the last year, Carreras, the deputy director, said that their own investigators have “consistently” encountered the same problems in their day-to-day work.

“[OCA] investigated complaints of a systemic nature that Georgia DFCS county offices consistently fail to protect children who are reported … to be victims of physical or sexual abuse or child sexual exploitation,” Carreras wrote.

In all, 15 systemic issues were identified by OCA. Some of the allegations include that DFCS is closing cases prematurely, and that when DFCS is told that specific children are in “immediate danger,” the agency does not respond.

The lack of coordination between DFCS and law enforcement has become debilitating, the watchdog agency said. The OCA reported seeing a rise in medical and law enforcement professionals taking emergency custody of kids when DFCS fails to act. Moreover, placement or services for suspected victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse or physical abuse are often “inappropriate” or “inadequate.”

The memo also alleges that many DFCS offices are taking the stance that children as young as 13 years of age are able to ‘self-protect’ and therefore do not need assistance in homes in which parents are using drugs, there is a sexually abusive sibling, or basic needs are not being met.

“We are certain you appreciate the need for timely correction of these issues given the ongoing threat to the safety of child victims that they pose,” Carreras wrote.

In response, the state’s Office of the Inspector General, an internal investigations unit at DHS, said that the allegations in the report were not backed by evidence.

In the case of Jayceion, the ombudsman says the caseworker took an extended break and no one else covered for them. The OIG completely disagreed with the ombudsman’s assessment. They say the caseworker never took extended leave, and they believe Jayceion likely died in late November before the caseworker tried contacting the family.

The OIG also alleged that leadership at one North Georgia child advocacy center was largely behind the allegations, and that several of the cases referenced were from nearby counties. What’s more, DFCS staff pointed out that the eight cases studied were not representative of the state. DFCS currently has about 10,800 children under age 18 in foster care.

OIG also reviewed the cases referenced in the OCA report, and found that while some cases had missing documentation, no egregious errors were made by DFCS or caseworkers. In the case of Jayceion, however, OIG found “disturbing” mismanagement by DFCS staff.

“While we feel it is likely that Jayceion was already dead before the last referral.., that in no way excuses [the caseworker’s] lack of action on the case,” OIG said.

Office of the Child Advocate Director Jerry Bruce did not comment on the claims that the report lacks evidence, but said in a statement that “OCA stands by the results of its investigation.”

There is a notable difference between OCA and the DHS investigators, said Carter. OCA is a separate government agency with an independently appointed director who acts as a watchdog. The OIG is an office within DHS that oversees internal program monitoring and performance management.

The caseworker crisis

Georgia has never had an easy time retaining caseworkers. The job is a tough one: the pay is low, the stakes are high and the work is emotionally fraught.

Then a global pandemic kicked this challenge into overdrive.

Caseworkers in Georgia and across the nation are trading their jobs for less stressful, higher paying ones. This has resulted in a domino effect: caseworkers leave, and their cases are shifted to other caseworkers. Those caseworkers then become overburdened and leave, thus continuing the cycle.

“This is unfortunately not unique to Georgia,” said Dr. Yvonne Chase, president-elect of the National Association of Social Workers. “We have always had difficulty in maintaining staffing and child protection agencies, but the pandemic has made it worse.”

Monthly reports compiled by DHS human resources show just how severe the turnover has become. In July 2022, more than 55% of all caseworkers had left their jobs in the past year. That’s compared to a 31% turnover rate the year before.

Since 2005, court-appointed monitors have produced independent reports on DFCS’ handling of foster care in DeKalb and Fulton counties. The most recent report shows how caseworker churn is damaging the child welfare system. Broce has pledged to make up for the progress that was lost in those counties.

Many case managers are leaving without notice, resulting in little to no transfer of case information to a new caseworker, according to a court monitor’s report from June. The high caseloads are reducing the time caseworkers can spend engaging with kids and their families. A recent internal survey of DFCS workers and supervisors, cited in the report, found that about half of them were actively seeking other employment.

In May, a total of 25 Fulton County caseworkers all called in sick to protest their working conditions. They were all fired.

“You don’t get to prove a point by putting children’s lives in danger,” Broce said in a statement defending the firings.

DHS says they are aggressively working to recruit and retain workers. The most recent budget included a cost-of-living pay raise and a one-time bonus to all state workers. They’ve boosted salaries for people with master’s degrees and pay overtime to workers, among other steps. DHS says they’re starting to see results: in October of 2021 turnover was at 19.3%, and as of October 2022 it was at 18.6%.

“It’s absolutely harder to retain caseworkers now,” Broce said in a statement. “COVID rapidly changed the market dynamics and private sector opportunities are hard to compete with, despite increasing salaries and providing staff with more flexibility. Also, we are grappling with placement issues, lack of care coordination, [and] issues in the judicial system.”

An exodus of ‘subject matter expertise’

The firing of dozens of caseworkers haven’t been the only recent firings at the agency.

In total, about ten people in senior leadership at DHS and DFCS were fired or given an ultimatum that they must leave, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Those positions ranged from attorneys to some of the highest ranking officials, many of whom had a decade or more in experience in the field. In addition, about nine other top senior leaders have left of their own accord.

There are about 50 people within senior leadership roles at DHS, according to an organizational chart of the agency.

The monitor’s report also notes the number of high-ranking staffers who have left, and says the leadership changes, the pandemic, and the caseworker crisis have “without doubt led to a steady decline in performance.”

Carter agreed.

“There’s been almost a complete evacuation of subject matter expertise,” said Carter, who left the ombudsman role in 2010. “There have been a dozen or more people who have left those positions for one reason or another, and been replaced by people who don’t necessarily come from the work [of child welfare].”

Broce says this isn’t true, and pointed to several veterans in the department, including Mary Havick, who serves as Deputy Commissioner over child welfare.

At the same time, Broce has no experience within the human services or child welfare industries.

But Broce says she has much relevant experience, including a health law certificate from a top program; experience as a committee aide on the House Health & Human Services Committee, and she worked closely with DHS and DFCS as the governor’s chief operations officer.

“I took on two agencies in the midst of a global pandemic with massive staff shortages, shuttered offices, outdated technology, big lawsuits, and depleted morale,” Broce said. “We’re focusing on progress over perfection.”

Child welfare organizations

DHS: The Department of Human Services, the agency that oversees DFCS

DFCS: The Division of Family and Children Services is responsible for investigating child abuse, and finding homes for neglected children.

Office of the Child Advocate: the state’s child welfare ombudsman, a separate government agency with an independently appointed director who acts as a watchdog over DFCS

DHS Office of the Inspector General: An internal investigations unit at the Department of Human Services

Children’s Advocacy Centers: Independent organizations that respond to child maltreatment allegations and provide help to victims of abuse