To measure the impact, the AJC analyzed DFCS data obtained through open records requests, reviewed annual reports and spoke to dozens of professionals in the child welfare community. Reporters also sat down for an exclusive interview with Clyde Reese, the commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees DFCS.
Reese acknowledged that times are tough, but he said DFCS is still doing a solid job.
"I don’t think the system is any closer to being broken than it has been. I don’t feel that it is strained to the point of no return,” he said, adding that he believes the numbers are leveling off.
Still, the commissioner added, "We’re at a point where we realize we will need more resources."
Child protection agencies operate within a perpetual debate: Is is more harmful to remove children from their parents, even troubled parents, or to leave them in potentially dangerous homes while working to help parents do better? In Georgia, the pendulum has swung back and forth over the years.
In the early days of former Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration, DFCS workers struggled under monumental caseloads. Perdue brought in a new social services chief, B.J. Walker, who set out to fix that; under him, DFCS slashed the number of cases almost in half.
When Reese assumed the helm of DHS in January 2011, a different problem was making headlines: The deaths of several children, accompanied by questions about whether DFCS had been alerted to problems within their families.
"A lot of times the answer was yes," Reese said. He worried that under Walker's leadership "the focus was solely on reducing the number of children in care, and all other concerns had taken a back seat to that.”
In 2009, then-State Child Advocate Tom Rawlings raised similar concerns that the agency was pressuring caseworkers to keep down the number of investigations by diverting families to community services. Then-DFCS Director Mark Washington defended the agency, saying that caseworkers were not being pressured, and that they were properly investigating cases, assessing family’s needs and keeping children safe.
At the time, Washington said statistics showed that few children who were diverted to other services had come back into the system with new cases of abuse or neglect.
On Reese's watch, DFCS workers have opened more investigations into reports of child abuse and neglect and taken in more children into foster care.
"We have a new focus on safety," Ron Scroggy, the interim DFCS director, told the AJC.
From February 2011 to February 2012, the agency added nearly 725 children to its foster care population, a 10 percent increase, according to state figures. The number of investigations into child abuse and neglect has more than doubled in that time, to an average on any given day of 3,432. And the overall daily average for DFCS cases -- including those in which children remain at home and the families receive services through DFCS or private agencies -- spiked 19 percent to more than 16,923.
"I think children are safer," said Kathy Colbenson of CHRIS Kids, a nonprofit that serves foster children in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
But other advocates worry that the pendulum is swinging too far, without adequate resources to do the job right. They remember the chaos that reigned in 2004, when the agency took in so many children and started so many investigations that workers, some with as many as 100 cases, said they were practicing "drive-by social work."
Now, as then, the agency's intervention is apt to destabilize already troubled families by adding to parents' stress, say those sounding the alarms.
"Instead of protecting children, it actually puts children at harm," said said Anna Avato, an official with the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 200 DFCS employees.
Complaints and praise
Caseloads appear to be rising the fastest in high-growth counties surrounding Atlanta, state data show. In a seven-county region northwest of Atlanta, the average monthly caseload has ticked up to 19, which is above the 12-to-17 cases suggested as a benchmark by the Child Welfare League of America.
In some places, those on the ground say workloads are even higher.
Several Bartow County workers have more than 20 cases, said Juvenile Court Judge Velma Tilley. In response, some quit and are not replaced, leaving an even greater workload for their beleaguered colleagues.
“I have caseworkers throwing up because of the stress," Tilley said.
In some instances, important information falls through the cracks. The judge recalled a case in which a new caseworker suggested placing an at-risk child with a grandmother, unaware that the woman had a history of punishing children by leaving them in a graveyard at night.
In Cherokee County, most caseworkers have more than 30 cases, said Deidre Hollands, head of the local office for volunteers who serve as advocates for children in the system. "Kids needs take longer to be met," Hollands said. "I see kids who get placed in a [relative's or foster] home and not get checked on."
Jamie Averett, a court-appointed attorney for children in the Bartow system, has filed several court motions to compel DFCS to provide services. She said foster children are not receiving transportation to some counseling visits. That works against the agency's efforts to stabilize families and bring them back together, she said.
To make things worse, a shortage of foster homes sometimes forces workers to place children in different counties than their parents. “You end up with a child 10 counties away, where he or she knows nobody,” said Juvenile Court Judge John Worcester of the Appalachian Circuit, which covers several North Georgia counties.
Drug screens a "joke"
Another tool many workers consider critical is in increasingly short supply: Drug screens to ensure that a parent is staying clean.
“You have to pull teeth for drug screens,” Floyd County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Pape said. “They [DFCS managers] don’t want to do it because of the cost.”
Juvenile Court Judge John Sumner in Cherokee County said DFCS has been referring some parents with addictions to drugs such as methamphetamine to Alcoholics Anonymous for treatment. “Drug treatment and drug testing is a joke,” he said.
In March, the state did begin to hire some new child welfare workers. The governor also increased next year's budget for placing children outside their homes by about 10 percent.
"Gov. Deal increased funding for next year because he knows the caseload has grown," said spokesman Brian Robinson in a statement. "While Gov. Deal is committed to limited state government spending, he has and will continue to invest in the state's top priorities, such as our children's safety."
Even as advocates call for more money, others caution that increased funding is not always the answer.
“A lot of the efficiencies in government came about because of budget cuts,” said Benita Dodd of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation. However, she added, DFCS should make its case to the Legislature and governor.
More strain ahead
There are more challenges on the horizon.
Deal has promised to a sign a bill passed by lawmakers that expands the categories of adults required to report suspected child abuse and neglect. That is likely to lead to more reports for DFCS to handle.
And the agency is facing the possible loss of $37 million from a stream of federal money it has used in past years to offset reductions in state funding.
"You see these kids come into the courtroom and it just breaks your heart," said Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Carden. "With the right services you feel like you could help them. But sometimes what they need is out of reach."
Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this report.