Once released, the state can then direct certain monies that had been spent on the lawsuit to better the lives of foster children across the state, he said.
The new agreement comes at a time of increasing challenges for the state child protection system, which has seen a significant increase in the number of children entering foster care. The number of foster children has risen from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,266 in October of this year.
That’s a 75 percent increase that officials attribute in part to a new centralized call-in system. Some advocates also point to the increasing abuse of prescription drugs, especially opioids, which lead some addicted parents to neglect their children.
The explosive rise in foster children has contributed to a severe shortage of foster homes.
For all that, officials with the advocacy group that brought the lawsuit, Children’s Rights, said they see DFCS moving in the right direction with the right leadership. A lack of leadership over the years — some 10 directors over 10 years — hampered the agency’s efforts to meet the court-ordered criteria for improvement, they say.
“Director Cagle’s strong leadership, combined with proper resources, is the mix that will really improve things for kids and families,” said Ira Lustbader of Children’s Rights, a New York-based group that has brought similar lawsuits across the country.
The state has already made strides in reducing caseloads, improving response times to allegations of abuse, and ensuring that foster kids are kept healthier and safer, he said. The shelters in Fulton and DeKalb were shut down in 2003.
The new agreement modifies several of the 31 performance measures set for the agency in 2005, some of which have become outdated and others that proved too difficult to meet and maintain. Over the years, the state has been unable to shake itself free from the court mandate, and has spent some $12 million on legal fees associated with the case, Cagle said.
“Certain measures were statistically impossible to achieve,” Cagle said. “They needed to be more realistic.”
Lustbader, of Children’s Rights, said he is confident that the state, once released from the court agreement, will not revert to its troubled ways. He said the agreement will put in place an infrastructure that will sustain it.
Because the court order was isolated to Fulton and DeKalb counties, state officials poached resources from the rest of the state, according to a 2012 analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The state shift of money and manpower created a two-tiered system, with children in Fulton and DeKalb guaranteed more benefits and attention than in the other 157 counties.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said she believes the state has made enough progress to where it can move toward exiting the court order. She wants to see some of the money spent on tracking, experts and lawyers used to help children in the system.
She also wants to see the extra money that has been going to Fulton and DeKalb redistributed to help other children around the state.
“I think this is a very good move,” she said. “I’d like to see the spending equalized around the state.”