U.S. senators launch inquiry into Georgia’s foster care system

Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat from Georgia, is leading the inquiry
Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) at a hearing on “Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Federal Prisons” in December 2022. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) at a hearing on “Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Federal Prisons” in December 2022. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff is launching a bipartisan inquiry into alleged abuse and neglect of children in Georgia’s foster care system, and is demanding answers from state officials on their ability to keep these vulnerable kids safe.

Last year, the state’s ombudsman for child welfare found widespread and systemic breakdowns within the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, as detailed in a recent investigation from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, the state’s ombudsman, found that caseworkers are not adequately responding to child abuse cases and that placement services for victims of human trafficking, sexual abuse, or physical abuse were often “inadequate” or “inappropriate.” Moreover, the ombudsman found a lack of appropriate response and documentation in these “serious cases” was alarming.

State officials vehemently disagreed with the assessment, saying that the ombudsman failed to provide any evidence backing up its claim of widespread, systemic failures within DFCS that leave children in danger.

Ossoff, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, sent a list of questions to DFCS on Friday in the form of a 4-page letter.

“As leaders, we have no higher obligation than to protect those who cannot protect themselves – especially children at risk of abuse or neglect,” said Ossoff, who is the newly minted chairman of the human rights subcommittee, and Blackburn, a subcommittee member. “Yet recent official and press reports raise serious concerns about the ability of Georgia Division of Family and Children Services to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children in its care.”

DHS officials said in a statement “We have received the letter, and we look forward to sharing our efforts to protect Georgia’s children,” they said.

The memo, written in the summer from the ombudsman, identified 15 systemic breakdowns within the agency. Notably, the ombudsman found that the murder of a 4-year old was a consequence of systemic failures that are plaguing DFCS. According to an internal review conducted by the state, there was “disturbing” mismanagement in the young boy’s case, but they found his death was an isolated tragedy.

Ossoff and Blackburn also want answers on why the state is spending tens of millions of dollars on hoteling, or temporarily housing foster children in hotels. This practice has persisted for years in Georgia and across the nation. But the trend was made worse by the pandemic and consequent staff shortages in child welfare industries.

DHS Commissioner Candice Broce, who oversees DFCS, has pledged to end the practice. Broce is pushing bills this legislative session she says will fix statutory loopholes to keep more families intact and bolster Georgia’s efforts to eliminate hoteling.

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. Gov. Brian Kemp and state officials acknowledge the turnover issue and are working to implement policies, like higher wages for workers. So far, the rates within DFCS have started to improve.

Sources told the AJC that Broce has fired or pushed out some of the longest serving, highest ranking employees. One child welfare expert said this exodus of knowledge has shattered an operation that was already fragile. Broce, a former spokesperson for Kemp, wouldn’t comment on the firing allegations. But she disagrees that there has been some large exodus of knowledge, and has highlighted multiple high ranking officials who are veterans of the agency.

In the letter, Ossoff and Blackburn are asking for questions to be answered and copies of the documents requested by March 10th.

“While these issues may have started before your tenure, they can and must end under your watch,” Ossoff and Blackburn wrote. “We look forward to your prompt responses to help ensure the safety and wellbeing of Georgia’s children, no matter their story.”

Today’s announced congressional inquiry was launched as a result of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s months-long review of the state Department of Family and Children’s Services that uncovered systemic issues within the department placing children in danger.

Hundreds of pages of public documents and interviews with industry experts late last year revealed the state’s child welfare system in turmoil with caseworkers quitting in droves, citing low pay and exhaustion from increased workloads. We’ve also reported on the DFCS director pledging she is “hellbent” on ending the practice of placing foster children in hotels.