DHS lawyers: Ossoff inquiry into foster care turns ‘political’

State responds to allegations that surfaced at Senate subcommittee hearings

Lawyers for the state’s child welfare agency sent a scathing letter to Sen. Jon Ossoff on Tuesday, calling a Senate investigation he’s leading into Georgia’s foster care system a “political” endeavor.

The U.S. Senate Human Rights subcommittee, chaired by Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat, is examining alleged abuse and neglect in the state’s foster care system. The subcommittee has held two hearings — one in Atlanta, and one in Washington D.C. — in the past week, and has revealed several revelations, including an internal audit from the child welfare agency showing the state failed to properly assess risks and safety concerns in 84% of cases that were reviewed. Ossoff and Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee announced the inquiry in February, which was prompted in part by an investigation from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late 2022.

“The misstatements, omissions, and failure of the subcommittee to request relevant information or responses from the Department in advance of its publicized hearings and press conferences leave the unfortunate impression that the goals of this investigation are political,” the state’s lawyers, wrote in the letter addressed to Ossoff and Blackburn. It’s the first detailed statement that the state has made since the hearings started.

The letter responded to a press conference the senator held on Friday, as well as to several points made by witnesses during their testimony at the hearings. One witness testified under oath that the number of Georgia children in foster care is approximately 11,000 and rising. According to the Department of Human Services, which oversees child welfare in Georgia, the number of foster children in Georgia was 10,464 in August 2023, down from a high of 14,202 in May 2018.

DHS also responded to findings that Ossoff made public on Friday: that 1,790 children in the care of the state’s Division of Family and Children Services were reported missing between 2018 and 2022, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The agency said it was not given the analysis beforehand, denying state child welfare officials the opportunity to understand it or respond. DHS also pointed to a recent federal report that found Georgia’s rate of foster children reported missing is lower than its neighboring states of Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina, and is less than half the rate of a number of other states. What’s more, the agency says it takes seriously the issue of missing or runaway children, including providing its staff with has a 14-page policy memo on how to handle the issue.

But in the letter, the lawyers took issue with, but did not explicitly deny, one key allegation that was made at a subcommittee hearing on Monday: that DHS Commissioner Candice Broce asked judges in August whether they’d consider extending a child’s time in detention while the state tried to find a placement for them. Such a move, one judge, testified would violate the law. These children have complex behavioral and mental health needs, and some have criminal backgrounds, making them very difficult for the state to place in a foster home. The judge said this is the same population of kids that the state has had to place in hotels, or even office spaces.

Instead, the state in its letter said the testimony that was presented was lacking “critically important context and accuracy,” about what Broce, who oversees DFCS, said to the room of judges in August.

“Commissioner Broce did not encourage judges to violate state law, and it has never been DFCS policy to punish a child with complex needs through detention,” the letter said.

Additionally, one judge alleged that during the meeting, one of her fellow judges brought up that the law specifically prohibits detaining a child because of a lack of a more appropriate facility, and DHS counsel indicated the law could be changed.

DHS did not respond to requests for clarification about exactly what Broce and the DHS counsel said at this meeting.

A spokesperson for Ossoff’s office said that the subcommittee looks forward to interviewing relevant DFCS personnel about Monday’s testimony by Georgia juvenile judges. Additionally, the spokesperson said that the significant number of children in care who have been reporting missing in Georgia and across the country requires urgent attention.

“The subcommittee has been in regular contact with Georgia DFCS throughout this investigation and will seek Georgia DFCS’ continued cooperation,” said Jake Best, a spokesperson for Ossoff. “The subcommittee’s investigation is ongoing, and the essential question is whether children in foster care are protected from abuse and neglect given serious concerns raised for years by watchdogs, parents, and the press.”

The state’s letter, signed by its private lawyers -- based in Boston and the Washington D.C.-area -- who are representing Georgia’s child welfare agency. The letter said that in a meeting with juvenile judges, which was at the judges’ invitation, Broce discussed the lack of appropriate options and safe placements for young adults with serious mental and behavioral health challenges. At this meeting, the letter said that participants also talked through recent legislation, and ways to better collaborate.

“Some judges in attendance spoke about the extreme difficulty balancing the child’s treatment needs, the family’s safety concerns, and overall safety for the community. Often, solutions are tough to find,” the letter said. “The discussion included how additional time and resources might be necessary to best serve the family, especially through enhanced coordination between state agencies.”

Broce is a close ally of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who could challenge Ossoff when he runs for re-election in 2026. She has made it a priority to end the practice of housing kids in hotels and DFCS offices. These kids are among the most high-risk kids, for whom its difficult to find a foster facility that will take them in.

Candice Broce, pictured next to the U.S. flag, raises her right hand to take an oath after Gov. Brian Kemp was sworn in as governor in January 2019. Source: Broce's Facebook page

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In the state’s letter, the lawyers said that DHS has “worked hard to address this problem, which arose from a combination of provider shortages and denials from the State’s managed-care insurance company.” Now, the state appeals almost every insurance denial and frequently pays outright for residential treatment while it appeals the coverage denials. On Monday, there was one child staying in a hotel, according to the letter. Earlier this year, it was common some nights for there to be up to 70 children being kept in a hotel because the state couldn’t find a placement for them.