Lawsuit: Georgia DHS discriminated against social workers, endangered foster care kids

The lawsuit alleges a racially hostile work environment at child welfare agency; agency spokesman says it complied with all laws
Georgia State Capitol, the Gold Dome

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Georgia State Capitol, the Gold Dome

Nearly a dozen former state social workers have filed a federal lawsuit against their former employer — the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) — alleging racial discrimination, unsustainable caseloads and dangerous living conditions for foster children.

The plaintiffs, who are all African or African American women, say they were fired when they tried to unionize in May 2022. The plaintiffs sought to address “inadequate” care for foster children and pay disparities between Black and white social workers, the lawsuit says.

“This racially hostile work environment was unwelcome and was allowed to persist because of Plaintiffs’ African or African American race,” the complaint, filed in a Georgia federal court this week, reads.

Kylie Winton, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees the state’s child welfare division, said the agency has not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit, adding: “We comply with all applicable law, rules, and policy.” DHS is also named in the suit.

The lawsuit reads as an indictment of the state’s foster care system.

Employees often managed more than 50 children, greatly exceeding national caseload standards of between 12 and 18 cases per social worker, the suit alleges. This meant workers often had to forgo comprehensive assessments and services. The plaintiffs also allege the foster care children who lived in the Fulton office as part of the state’s “office hoteling” program did not receive adequate care.

The former employees complained to superiors that children were sleeping on cots and mats on the floor and were not given adequate meals. Frequent fights among the children led to more than 100 calls to local law enforcement. Yet, agency leaders did nothing to address these concerns, the lawsuit said.

“Defendant was aware of the repeated calls to law enforcement concerning lawlessness in the office building,” the complaint reads.

When one plaintiff was told by an unnamed leadership official that social workers in the division’s predominantly-white Cherokee County office were given raises to address similar caseload problems, the plaintiffs decided they would organize a union and sue the state agency over pay disparities, the lawsuit says.

But the lawsuit says their efforts were stymied by DFSC director Candice Broce, who also serves as Commissioner of the Department of Human Services and is named in the suit. Employees were prevented from speaking about unionization or wearing black clothing to show solidarity for the collective action at work— a violation of their constitutional rights to free speech, the lawsuit alleges. On May 20th, all 11 plaintiffs were fired.

“Defendant violated Plaintiffs’ rights ... first by failing to take prompt and immediate remedial action to address the abusive workplace, then by firing Plaintiffs due to their plans to file a lawsuit and form a union,” the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified sum for damages, including back pay, lost benefits and punitive damages.

The lawsuit comes as U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff continues his investigation into the state’s foster care system. The inquiry was launched following an investigation by the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late last year, which 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.