Deal plans to restructure child protection agency

Governor Nathan Deal, shown during a January interview at the State Capitol, has been considering major changes to Georgia's Division of Family and Children Services after two metro Atlanta children and reports in the AJC that mistakes by DFCS workers contributed to at least 25 deaths in 2012. The governor now plans to restructure the agency, sources tell the AJC.

Credit: AJC FILE

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Governor Nathan Deal, shown during a January interview at the State Capitol, has been considering major changes to Georgia's Division of Family and Children Services after two metro Atlanta children and reports in the AJC that mistakes by DFCS workers contributed to at least 25 deaths in 2012. The governor now plans to restructure the agency, sources tell the AJC.

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

Gov. Nathan Deal plans to restructure Georgia’s troubled child-protection agency in hopes of holding its leaders more accountable, two people with direct knowledge of the move told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday.

The move would require the head of the Division of Family and Children Services to report directly to the governor’s office. The agency’s leader, Dr. Sharon Hill, now reports to the commissioner of the Department of Human Services.

The shift drew sharply different reactions from child welfare advocates, with some believing it would make children’s safety a greater priority while others questioned whether it would make any difference.

It could be the precursor to creating a stand-alone department focused on child safety, but that move would require legislative action and likely increased funding. Deal’s office declined to comment on the plans, which are scheduled to be announced Thursday.

The change is the latest in a series of shakeups for the agency after the highly publicized deaths of two metro Atlanta children and reports in the AJC that mistakes by DFCS workers contributed to at least 25 deaths in 2012.

The governor, facing re-election in November, backed a plan to spend $27 million over the next three years to hire more than 500 caseworkers and supervisors for the agency. He also formed a council comprised of lawmakers, health care workers and experts to study changes, including the privatization of some foster care services.

Arizona's child safety agency underwent a similar shakeup in January. Gov. Jan Brewer abolished the previous agency and created a new division whose director would report directly to the governor on all matters involving child welfare. Brewer complained that the former system, which came under fire for failing to investigate more than 6,500 cases, was plagued by a lack of transparency and flawed focus.

Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker praised the Georgia plan as “a great idea.” She said it will help streamline communication between DFCS and the governor. Under the existing system, the DFCS head often communicates through the state Human Services commissioner, which can bury child safety under the needs of the umbrella agency, she said.

“This way, (the DFCS director) will have the freedom to speak about the agency’s needs. There will be no layer in between,” Walker said.

The change could also heighten attention on child welfare, which could make the General Assembly more attentive to the needs of the agency, said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children.

But Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a longtime advocate for children, worried that a restructuring could result in agency chaos. Before she would endorse the plan, she said she would want to know the identities of those who will lead DFCS and those responsible for oversight in the governor’s office.

“I want to know who these people are, what are their credentials and what is their expertise in child welfare,” Oliver said.

In the long run, “it’s not really the reporting mechanism that matters,” said Ron Scroggy, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “It’s what is going to be done to keep kids and families safe. It could be a good thing. It could be nothing.”

Deal plans to elaborate on the move Thursday, including the role of Hill, the current DFCS director, in the reorganization.

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