Ga. allegedly asked judges to consider detaining special needs kids

Judge’s claim surfaced in Senate subcommittee hearing examining state foster care system
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff is chairing the subcommittee. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff is chairing the subcommittee. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

A juvenile judge alleged on Monday that the state’s Division of Family & Children Services director asked Georgia courts to consider temporarily detaining children with special needs while the state tried to find a placement for them, a move that the judge said would violate the law.

The allegations were made during a U.S. Senate Human Rights subcommittee hearing in Atlanta, chaired by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat. The subcommittee is examining alleged abuse and neglect in the state’s foster care system. 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.

“As judges we do not lock up children, especially special-needs children, because we cannot find a place for them,” Carolyn Altman, a juvenile court judge in Paulding County, said during her testimony.

These children have complex behavioral and mental health needs, and some of them 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.

The Department of Human Services, which oversees DFCS, did not respond to requests for comment.

Altman alleged that the remarks were made by DHS Commissioner Candice Broce, who also is the director for DFCS, at a meeting in August, with about 30 other judges and DFCS leadership. Altman says the law says children are only to be detained “in the most limited circumstances,” and that a child “shall not be detained due to a lack of a more appropriate facility.”

Altman also alleged that one of her colleagues brought up that the law specifically prohibits detaining a child because of a lack of placement, and DHS counsel indicated the law could be changed.

“[These remarks were] not overheard in passing, it was in a room of 30-something judges,” Altman said.

Altman said she understood the request to extend a child’s detention when there’s not a legal basis for them to remain detained. These children, who are very high needs, might otherwise end up in hotels or DFCS offices, she said.

“DFCS has an incredibly difficult job, finding placements for children with [high needs] is incredibly difficult,” she said. “The answer is create more placements, to address the problem.”

Nhan-Ai Simms, a juvenile court judge in Gwinnett County, testified that she was also at that meeting, and also alleged those remarks were made.

“Frankly, I was heartbroken, I think if our child welfare system... has gotten to the point where we want to extend a child’s time in detention just because we can’t find a place for them, then something is wrong, and it’s not working,” she said.

Broce has made it a key 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. The AJC reported in September that DHS managed to get the number of children staying in hotels and offices down to zero for one night. Earlier this year, it wasn’t unusual for there to be up to 70 children being kept in a hotel on the same night.

Broce has previously attributed the decrease to several factors, including legislation aimed to reduce the number of kids entering foster care and temporary hotel placements. Additionally, Broce said that a key factor has been working with providers who can find a foster placement for these kids. Often, some of the hardest placements involve kids who have a developmental disability, an intellectual disability or prior involvement with the delinquency system.

At the hearing, three judges described a system that is in crisis. Staff are overwhelmed, underpaid and suffer from inadequate training and burnout. There are also not enough providers who can care for these kids.

Simms, the juvenile court judge in Gwinnett County, said that what she has seen is a culture of “child protection by the numbers.”

“Cases triaged to boost statistics, and then closed prematurely in misleading triumph. It’s widely known that DFCS has been under immense pressure to address what has been a series of public relations crises. What I have seen is that pressure leading to the neglect or deliberate avoidance of the most complex and heart-wrenching cases,” she said.

To date, the subcommittee reportedly has interviewed more than 100 people and reviewed thousands of pages of records, including Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) own internal reviews of cases. The investigation is still ongoing, and it’s unclear how long it could last.