Lawmakers mull changes to reduce the number of foster kids in hotels

A bill package backed by the Department of Human Services is moving through the Georgia Legislature

Georgia lawmakers are advancing bills that aim to reduce the number of kids entering foster care and temporary hotel placements, while advocates warned the changes would do little to achieve that end.

The six-bill package, backed by the state’s child welfare agency, is moving as vulnerable kids are still being placed in hotels for long stretches of time. The practice, referred to as hoteling, has persisted for years and was made worse by the pandemic: more child welfare providers lost staff and fewer people volunteered to become foster parents, making it very difficult to find foster homes for some children with the greatest needs. In turn, the state had to place kids with some of the most complex needs in hotel rooms and even office spaces.

Candice Broce, the DHS commissioner earlier told the Legislature she was ‘hellbent’ on ending hoteling. She says these bills will fix statutory loopholes to keep more families intact and work to eliminate hoteling in Georgia.

“[The legislation] will have a direct and immediate impact on keeping children newly entering our custody from being temporarily placed in a hotel or office,” she said at a February statehouse hearing.

Meanwhile, child advocates cautioned that these bills won’t do much to improve the system.

Melissa Carter, a former ombudsman for the state’s child welfare system, says that the key bill, Senate Bill 133 is not a “solution” to hoteling. Rather, it’s an effort to accommodate the state in how it deals with the problem of hoteling.

“If you agree that the problem is lack of service and placement capacity, then you will see this bill differently,” Carter said in a statement. “This is not a child protection bill.”

The package of bills is advancing as a bright spotlight is now on Georgia’s welfare services for children. U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff shocked the child welfare community when he announced he was opening a federal inquiry into the state’s system in February. That inquiry is based on an investigation from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that detailed breakdowns in child welfare, and numerous press reports into the practice of placing vulnerable children in hotels.

The state now has about 11,000 children under age 18 in foster care, according to the Department of Human Services, which oversees the Division of Family and Children Services or DFCS. On any given night in Georgia, approximately 50 to 70 kids in foster care are placed in temporary housing, like a hotel room. The state has spent tens of millions of dollars in hoteling costs, and the recent amended budget included another $10 million for hoteling costs and other alternative housing options for kids with complex needs.

DHS says that SB 133 clarifies procedures in custody hearings, and works to ensure that all agencies involved in juvenile court cases are making efforts to avoid children coming into their care unnecessarily, by granting the right services. DHS says these changes will have an “immediate and direct impact” on preventing kids from being temporarily placed in a hotel. Bill sponsors say the legislation could potentially undergo further changes.

Tom Rawlings, the former director of the Division of Family and Children Services, said that several of the bills in the package will help streamline custody procedures, but that solving hoteling will take a revamp of Georgia’s mental health services.

“This is a well-intended bill. But to really get to the root cause of hoteling will require a strengthening of the mental health system to ensure that children with complex needs can get the help they need in their homes and communities,” Rawlings said in an interview.

Carter, who now leads the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, said the legislation simply “buys time” for DFCS to rediscover that there are few services available, and that these high-needs kids will remain in detention instead of getting the right help.

“Youth with severe mental or behavioral health needs are left in uncertain and possibly unsafe circumstances,” she said. “We all want a solution to hoteling, this is just not it.”

The bill package was crafted over several months by a coalition of veteran Juvenile Court Judges, child welfare attorneys, and child welfare staff, according to DHS. The bills are backed by Gov. Brian Kemp, and all cleared the Senate unanimously last week, except for one no vote on SB 133. The bills will now need to move through the House before becoming law.

More generally, the bill package aims to streamline the state’s custody and guardianship procedures to ensure more kids stay with their parents and are able to be adopted with ease. For example, Senate Bill 135 would allow a child’s biological father to utilize prior genetic testing to petition the court for custody.

Another bill, Senate Bill 134, makes it clear that kids are allowed to testify in parental rights hearings. Additionally, the bill allows juvenile court parties to use more medical records in court proceedings without needing to have a doctor testify. The changes are intended to make it easier for children to stay with their parents.

In a statement, Kylie Winton, a spokesperson for DHS, thanked Kemp, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, and lawmakers for their work on these bills.

“Through their advocacy, these six bills – if passed in the opposite chamber and signed into law – will have a significant, positive impact on countless children’s lives,” Winton said.