Foster children experiencing ‘high' rate of abuse and neglect

Independent monitors were appointed to review the performance of the Fulton and DeKalb foster care systems in 2005 lawsuit settlement

Foster children in Fulton and DeKalb counties are experiencing a "high" rate of abuse and neglect while in state care, according to a report by federal monitors of these child welfare systems.

The report for the first six months of 2009 found that 25 of the 2,348 children in those foster care systems were abused or neglected while in the care of the state.

The report emphasized that the two child welfare systems, overseen by the state Division of Family and Children Services , have "no higher obligation" than to ensure the safety of these children, who were already abused or neglected in the homes from which they were removed.

Independent monitors James Dimas and Sarah Morrison were appointed by a federal judge to review the performance of the Fulton and DeKalb foster care systems after Georgia settled a lawsuit in 2005 that called for reforms. The lawsuit was filed by the advocacy group Children's Rights Inc. , which reacted to the findings of the report released Friday.

"We are extremely concerned that children in the ... foster care system are simply not safe, and that DFCS is not doing enough," said Children's Rights associate director Ira Lustbader.

Lustbader said Children's Rights has formally notified DFCS that the agency is in violation of the consent decree that covers the lawsuit settlement. He said the advocacy group is prepared to request that the court order reforms unless the agency makes improvements. Children's Rights officials are set to meet with DFCS officials Monday, Lustbader said.

DFCS spokeswoman Dena Smith said the agency has added staffing and resources to improve performance in these areas and "we should see improvement in the next report."

In particular, she said DFCS is more closely monitoring an area of concern noted in the report -- private agencies that contract with the state to provide foster care.

"The issue of child safety is first and foremost the concern" of DFCS, she said.

She also emphasized that the report pointed to areas in which the state has shown improvement, including meeting deadlines on investigations into the mistreatment of children in foster care and reuniting foster children with their families.

The consent decree orders that DFCS have a rate of abuse and neglect for children in the foster care system of no higher than 0.57 percent. The rate noted in the report is 1.06 percent. Lustbader said the defined rate is so low because there is little tolerance for such mistreatment of children in the state's care. He also said the rate is considered a "tip of the iceberg" indicator, which often points to more abuses that are not reported.

The report said the "high maltreatment in care rate" may be caused by the agency's  relaxed monitoring of private agencies contracted by the state to provide foster care for children in the system. It pointed to a decrease in staffing in these areas due to attrition, and noted that the state did not replace those workers due to the budget crisis.

Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, a lobbying group for private foster homes, disagreed with the report's assertions about relaxed oversight of those homes.

Adams said the state's monitoring of those homes is so intense "it's almost to the level of harassment."