Wednesday’s hearing is part of an inquiry announced in February by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, and prompted by an investigation from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late 2022.
Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat who chairs the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, launched the inquiry along with Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who is also on the subcommittee. The investigation is ongoing, but to date, the subcommittee reported it 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.
According to testimony from Melissa Carter, who previously served as the state’s child welfare system ombudsman, approximately 11,000 children are in foster care in Georgia, and that number is trending upwards. Foster care is meant to be temporary, she said, but children who enter foster care in Georgia are separated from their families on average for 19 months, compared to the nation’s median length of stay, which is now around 17.5 months.
Carter said Georgia cannot reliably measure or monitor the incidence of child abuse and neglect. She also believes Georgia has not sufficiently invested in prevention that could keep families together and children safe.
The subcommittee obtained an internal audit performed by DFCS in 2023, which they say found that while the state agency largely initiated investigations in a timely manner, it also failed to assess and address risks and safety concerns in 84% of the 100 cases that were reviewed.
“This is an investigation about children, the most vulnerable children in our nation: orphan children, children who have faced the most extreme forms of abuse and neglect,” Ossoff said. “Two years ago I became a parent, and what we have learned is happening to children in the state’s care, in the care of state agencies across the country, is heartbreaking.”
Blackburn said that earlier this year, she sent a letter to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services saying she wanted to work together with the agency to improve services. Since that time, she said the agency has undergone a “complete and total overhaul,” cutting state case manager caseloads in half.
It’s unclear how long the subcommittee’s investigation will take. After the hearing, Ossoff didn’t want to speculate on what could come out of the inquiry but said it could form the basis for legislation at the federal level and potentially state level.
“Reform is absolutely the ultimate goal, and change starts with the truth, so our role at this time is to investigate and understand what is happening to some of the most vulnerable children in the state of Georgia,” he said.
Aldridge said in her daughter’s case, there were system failures. DFCS didn’t follow some of its own policies, she said, like running a background check on the people who live in the home where a child is placed. If they did, they would have found that Coleman had a criminal history and DFCS previously pursued a child neglect case against her.
“The system that was put in place to protect my daughter failed her,” she said.
States across the U.S. have a shortage of homes and facilities that can take children in foster care, and are struggling to retain caseworkers who work directly with vulnerable children and their families. “Hoteling,” the practice of keeping children in the foster system in a hotel or even an office overnight while waiting for a more permanent foster home, has festered as an issue across the country. The headlines in various states show evidence of a structural crisis. In Nevada: “Kids housed in casino hotels? It’s a workaround as U.S. sees decline in foster homes.” In Oregon: “Oregon continued to put foster kids in hotels for years, defying legal settlement.” In Texas: “One-third of Texas foster care caseworkers left their jobs last year as the agency continued putting kids in hotels.”
In 2022, the AJC conducted a months-long review of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, an agency under the Department of Human Services, obtaining hundreds of pages of public documents and speaking with experts who described a child welfare system in turmoil. Caseworkers at Georgia DFCS were leaving their jobs in droves, fueled by low pay, frustration with leadership, and exhaustion from increased workloads, according to state human resources reports.
Last year, the office of the state’s ombudsman for child welfare alleged breakdowns within Georgia DFCS, identifying 15 systemic issues. The ombudsman’s office alleged that workers were no longer adequately responding to child abuse cases, and that the murder of a 4-year-old boy was a consequence of systemic failures.
State officials vehemently disagreed with the assessment, saying that the ombudsman failed to provide any evidence backing up its claim of systemic failures within DFCS that leave children in danger. According to an internal review of the 4-year-old’s death conducted by the state, there was “disturbing” mismanagement in the case, but they found his death was an isolated tragedy.
DHS also told the AJC that they were aggressively working to recruit and retain workers by boosting pay and providing staff with more flexibility. In the months since late 2022, Gov. Brian Kemp has signed several bills aimed at improving outcomes for foster kids, and reducing the number of foster kids in hotels.
After Candice Broce, who serves as the DFCS director and commissioner of the Department of Human Services told lawmakers she was determined to end the practice of hoteling, 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.
In late 2022, Child Advocate Director Jerry Bruce did not comment on the claims that the findings of his office lacked evidence, but said in a statement that his office “stands by the results of its investigation.” Asked in recent days whether there has been any additional correspondence between Office of the Child Advocate and DHS on the alleged systemic breakdowns, OCA said there hadn’t been any further communications on that particular issue, as it became a cause of the Ossoff inquiry.
DHS did not respond to the AJC’s requests for comment on Wednesday’s hearing. The office of Kemp, who could challenge Ossoff in his 2026 reelection bid, referred a reporter to DHS for comment.
Mon’a Houston, 19, told the subcommittee that when she was in foster care in Georgia from 2017 to 2022, she had 18 placements during that time. Only two were foster homes, she said, the rest were group homes, institutions or hotels. She said that she had three case managers, and it wasn’t unusual to go six months without seeing a caseworker.
In one facility, which she described as a “maximum security residential treatment program,” Houston said that she would often sit in isolation for more than five days. She wasn’t allowed to shower while in isolation, even during her menstrual cycle.
“This was the darkest time in a placement,” she said.