Foster kids housed in hotels? No more, DFCS decides

Need a meal? Call room service. The pool is down the hall, and you’re never far from a Coke or a candy bar.

Living in a hotel may sound nice, but it’s no place for a foster child. Still, the state has temporarily housed a total of a few hundred foster kids in hotels in recent years.

On Tuesday, officials said they will stop the practice.

Faced with a shortage of foster homes across the state, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) has periodically placed children brought into care in hotels accompanied by a trained worker to watch over them. The placements typically last only a few days until a suitable foster home is found for the child, officials said.

The practice of "hoteling" foster kids was criticized in an independent report released this week on the agency's handling of foster care in the counties of Fulton and DeKalb. Such reports have been produced every six months since 2005, part of a court settlement on a lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for foster children in those counties.

"Kids that come into foster care come from homes where there has been abuse and neglect. You are dealing with a vulnerable population," said Christina Remlin, an attorney with Children's Rights, the advocacy group that filed the lawsuit in 2002. "The best place for them is a family-like setting suitable to their needs."

State child protection officials said they will phase out the use of hotels by June 30, 2017, in Fulton and DeKalb, the two counties directly tied to the lawsuit settlement. Officials said they will also end the practice statewide, but placed no deadline on that commitment.

A few hundred foster kids have been placed temporarily in hotels in recent years, said Susan Boatwright of DFCS. On any given day, fewer than 1 percent of the children in foster care statewide are in hotels. She noted that on July 13 of this year, the agency had 12,558 children in foster care, 8 of which were in a hotel.

“The hotels are only used as a last resort,” Boatwright said. “It’s not where we want our kids to be.”

She said the agency is working with private foster care providers to expand their capacity to handle foster kids. The state is also beefing up efforts to recruit foster parents.

The initial lawsuit had asserted that child welfare offices in Fulton and DeKalb failed to protect the safety and well-being of the children in their care.

This latest report by the court-appointed monitors, which examined the last half of 2015, also noted some major improvements in foster care in Fulton and DeKalb. Several of the improvements came in the areas of keeping foster kids safe.

Caseworkers consistently made their monthly visits to children. DFCS completed virtually all investigations on time regarding the mistreatment of kids in care, and the agency reduced the number of children mistreated in care.

At the same time, the report noted that 48 percent of caseworkers had high caseloads, and that DFCS in general suffered from a high degree of turnover among employees.

High praise was offered to DFCS Director Bobby Cagle, who took the helm of the agency two years ago.

“Director Bobby Cagle and his team are dedicated to building a model child welfare system,” said Remlin of Children’s Rights. “Although challenges remain, their dedication has brought about some substantial improvements in the system.”