December 16, 2016 Atlanta - Larry Johnson, counselor with Chris 180 and foster parent, speaks at Chris 180 main office in Atlanta on Friday, December 16, 2016. Georgia has seen the most dramatic increase in foster children in the nation. The number of foster kids in the system has skyrocketed from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,266 presently, a 75 percent increase. Meanwhile, the system is struggling with a significant shortage of foster homes. That means kids get placed far away from their families, homes and schools, which makes it tougher on the kid and tougher for the system to eventually reunite the child with their family. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

A foster care Christmas ‘blessing’

The three brothers have different fathers, each of them absent. Their mother had mental health problems and abused cocaine, Ecstasy and marijuana. The boys - ages 4, 5 and 7 - were angry and troubled.

They were also among a tidal wave of children who have washed up in Georgia’s foster care system, which is grappling with the fastest-growing caseload in the nation. Since 2013, the number of children entering state care jumped from 7,600 to 13,266, a whopping 75 percent hike, according to state data.

The sharp increase is fueled in part by the escalating opioid epidemic. And it’s helped make a persistent crisis even worse in Georgia: foster homes are in short supply and case managers — the workers who visit kids in foster homes to monitor their care — quit all the time.

Arriving into the care of the state Division of Family and Children Services, the three siblings confronted a bleak reality. It’s rare to find an adoptive family willing to take in three siblings, meaning they’d likely have to split up. Their case managers came and went. They are on their fourth one in 18 months and, as each has disappeared, the boys had to come to know a new worker unfamiliar with them and their circumstances.

But as the holiday season approached, their story took a surprisingly joyful turn. They are being adopted, all of them, into the same family.

Last week, the kids headed off for a visit with their new adoptive parents. The brothers moved in to their Savannah home Friday, said Anne Wilson of the nonprofit child service group CHRIS 180, which provided their foster home.

Their foster father, Larry Johnson, said the move couldn’t come at a better time.

“It’s a Christmas blessing,” he said.

A national problem

One by one, the brothers were born, went through hell with their mother, and landed in state foster care.

Their journey reflects a growing national trend. The number of children coming into care is climbing, driven largely by the problem of drug addiction sweeping the United States.

Another factor has contributed to the growing number of Georgia foster kids. DFCS implemented a new hotline number for complaints about child abuse and neglect in 2013. The central call-in system replaced one in which each of the 159 counties had its own number. It’s spurred an 80 percent jump in cases, to 148,127 this year.

Substance abuse ranks as the second most prominent reason for children coming into care, behind parental neglect.

“Children who are too young to be left alone, are left alone,” said DFCS spokeswoman Susan Boatwright.

In a recent briefing to the state Senate, a child-welfare official reported, “We recently rescued an 8-year-old boy who graphically disclosed being raped on a regular basis in his home where he lived with his father in a `drug house.’ “

A recent analysis by The Associated Press found that, since 2013, kids are entering Georgia’s foster care system at a faster pace than any other state.

Problems persist

At worst, some children die.

In August, Dinah Paige Whited, an infant, died of multiple injuries and her father was charged with murder. Her mother was charged with child cruelty. Both parents had drug problems, prosecutors said.

DFCS has made strides in foster care. The agency has hired some 600 case managers since 2014, when Bobby Cagle, himself an adopted child from the North Carolina system, took the reins. But due to the high turnover, the agency is still looking to fill 170 positions.

Once a month, Cagle talks directly to workers to see what he can do to clear administrative barriers holding up individual adoptions.

Still, more than one in three front-line DFCS caseworkers leaves the job every year, according to agency figures. They complain of the low pay, which starts at $28,000, and the stress.

The influx of foster children has exacerbated a shortage of foster homes. Some children coming into care have been housed, at least for a few nights, in a DFCS office or hotel, before a foster home is identified.

Kicking walls, cursing

When the three boys arrived at the foster home of Larry Johnson in June of 2015, they were troubled.

“They were kicking walls, cursing, giving the middle finger, banging on windows,” recalled Johnson, whose foster home is in Gwinnett County. One of the boys struck a girl on a school bus.

The AJC agreed to not identify the boys to protect their privacy as they enter their new life.

Johnson, a man with a close-shaved haircut, mustache and goatee, takes on a determined look when he talks about being a foster parent. The boys are his first foster kids. They’ve been with him for 18 months. Before this, he worked with people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

His foster home is part of a relatively new program at CHRIS 180, which sets up foster homes designed to reunite siblings separated in the system and prepare them for adoption.

“I fell in love with the idea of reuniting siblings and bringing families back together,” said Johnson, 47 and unmarried. “It’s part of my ‘give back.’”

Johnson worked with therapists to deescalate the boys’ flare-ups. They learned deep breathing exercises and even some yoga. All the while he bestowed upon them a sense of “home, safety and stability.”

“The issue is not kicking the wall,” Johnson said. “It’s that he is trying to tell me something.”

Making everybody feel good

The boys have come a long way. The oldest, the 7-year-old, is reading above grade level, and he reads every day. The middle child has overcome his hesitancy with people.

“He lights up the room when he comes in,” Johnson said. “He makes everybody feel good.”

The youngest boy, just 4, now believes there are people out there in the world who love him and who will keep him safe.

While the boys have moved into their new home, their adoption becomes final in a few months.

For these boys, this adoption could be nothing less than life-elevating. Kids who grow up in foster care have a terrible record, once they’re adults, of ending up in crime, drugs and homelessness. When they age out of the system, they often lack loving adults around them, the ones who help young people into their first job, their first car, and who provide a parental safety net to catch them when they fall.

The boys still have a ways to go. They still have fresh mouths at times, but their outbursts don’t happen so often, so randomly, and seemingly for no reason. They’ll still be working with therapists in their new home, and they’ll have their new parents beside them.

Johnson already sees them blossoming.

“They are enjoying the blessings of life,” he said.

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