Federal inquiry: Failures within Georgia’s child welfare agency led to deaths of children

The scathing report comes after a federal inquiry led by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff released findings from a Senate subcommittee investigation that concluded systemic failures and mismanagement within Georgia’s child welfare contributed to the deaths of children. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff released findings from a Senate subcommittee investigation that concluded systemic failures and mismanagement within Georgia’s child welfare contributed to the deaths of children. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff released scathing findings from a federal probe into Georgia’s child welfare system on Tuesday, which concluded that systemic failures and mismanagement within the agency contributed to the deaths of children.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Ossoff, conducted the inquiry. It was announced more than a year ago and prompted by an investigation in late 2022 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The report describes how the Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) has identified “significant shortcomings” like staffing shortages, and insufficient training, that contribute to death and serious injuries among children it is responsible for.

The subcommittee reviewed years of audits and found an internal audit from the child welfare agency showing the state failed to properly assess risks and safety concerns in 84% of cases that were reviewed.

“Those audits reveal that DFCS consistently fails to adequately assess and address the safety risk and safety concerns relating to children,” the report said.

The 64-page report detailed several cases of child deaths in which they said DFCS mismanaged their care.

A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services, which oversees DFCS, sent an 11-page response to Ossoff’s report, taking issue with many of the findings. The spokesperson said the subcommittee’s report omits DFCS’s improvements, like addressing the issue of housing children in hotels, and strengthening safeguards for children in its care.

“The subcommittee’s report omits key context, ignores relevant data that undermine the report’s primary assertions, and takes great lengths to misrepresent DFCS actions, facts about various cases, and outcomes for many children in the state’s care,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement issued minutes before Ossoff’s report became public. “Our staff and leadership take our responsibility to Georgia’s at-risk youth with the utmost seriousness and will continue to identify and implement solutions that better serve those in our care. We encourage Sen. Ossoff to focus his efforts on putting the welfare of children above political gamesmanship.”

The Senate subcommittee said it reviewed thousands of pages of non-public documents from the Department of Human Services, which oversees the child welfare system in Georgia, and from the state’s child welfare watchdog, known as the Office of the Child Advocate. It also interviewed more than 100 witnesses, including top officials like DHS Commissioner Candice Broce, and convened four public hearings.

Among child deaths cited in the report, it says DFCS received a police report in May 2023 describing a mother wandering outside with her year-old baby, in “an obvious state of delusion and distress.” A DFCS worker tried and failed to contact the family prior to the child’s death two days later. The state’s ombudsman told the subcommittee that “they did not believe DFCS responded with appropriate urgency in light of the seriousness of the allegations.”

In its response, DHS said Ossoff’s report falsely claims that DFCS failed to keep children safe from physical and sexual abuse, and that those failures contributed to the deaths of children.

“These allegations are unfounded and irresponsible,” DHS said in a response. “The report relies on various reviews and audits conducted by DFCS itself. Those reviews, however, do not support the report’s conclusions.”

DHS also noted that the report was written by majority staff while Ossoff’s initial letter was bipartisan.

In 2022, the AJC conducted a months-long review of DFCS, obtaining hundreds of pages of public documents and speaking with experts who described a child welfare system in turmoil. Caseworkers at 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. Also in 2022, the office of the state’s ombudsman for child welfare alleged breakdowns within DFCS, identifying 15 systemic issues.

The ombudsman’s office said 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 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 state officials found his death was an isolated tragedy.

The report released by Ossoff found the subcommittee’s investigation validated the ombudsman’s earlier report of DFCS’ “systemic” failures to keep children safe from physical and sexual abuse. The report also says that DHS’ Office of the Inspector General conducted an “inadequate, limited-scope review,” which it alleges was “potentially jeopardized” by interference from DHS Commissioner Broce.

The subcommittee says it found a number of issues within the DHS review, including that the inspector general failed to conduct critical interviews, never reviewed key evidence submitted to DHS, and never reviewed audits and reports that would have corroborated the ombudsman’s findings.

DHS, in its response, said the Senate subcommittee’s report “confuses and misuses statistics” DFCS has reported to the federal government, and “wrongly denigrates” the work of the DHS Office of the Inspector General and other personnel. DHS also said that “at no time did the Commissioner direct the investigation or ask for a particular outcome.”

Additionally, the subcommittee says it obtained documentation from the state’s ombudsman, describing examples in which DFCS failed to protect children from sexual abuse. For example, an earlier audit of the Glynn County DFCS Office found a child was raped by an adult resident of their group home, after DFCS declined to open an investigation. The state’s ombudsman reported that the child was raped again after that.

The report also said that DHS is “weakening independent oversight” of Georgia’s child welfare system by taking over the selection of members oversight bodies, or “Citizen Review Panels,” that are tasked with reviewing DFCS’ performance. These panels have been appointed by an independent entity for the last 16 years, according to the report, and during that time have been “sharply critical” of DFCS’ performance. DHS announced that it will now appoint members of these panels, according to the report.

Previously, lawyers for the DFCS sent a letter to Ossoff, calling the Senate investigation a “political” endeavor. Broce, the DHS commissioner, is a close ally of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who could challenge Ossoff when he runs for re-election in 2026.

Office of the Child Advocate Director Jerry Bruce, who serves as the ombudsman, did not respond to a request for comment.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a report from the state’s ombudsman for child welfare, which alleged breakdowns within DFCS, was released in 2022, not 2023.