Report: Georgia foster care investigations lacking

The state child protection agency has failed to perform adequate investigations into instances of abuse and neglect against foster children in Fulton and DeKalb counties, according to a report released Monday.

The report spurred sharp criticism from child welfare advocates who stressed that these children have been wronged again and again. They were mistreated by their parents, so the state removed them into foster care, and then they suffered similarly at the hands of their foster parents.

Then the state failed to properly investigate, said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, an advocacy group.

“These are extremely vulnerable kids,” Lustbader said. “They’ve already been traumatized and removed from their home into state foster care. When they are abused or neglected by a foster parent, it is extraordinary trauma.”

The report was produced by two child welfare experts appointed by a federal judge to monitor the foster care systems in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The monitors have produced reports twice a year since a 2005 settlement in a lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights. The lawsuit asserted that child welfare offices in Fulton and DeKalb, run by the state Division of Family and Children Services, failed to protect the safety and well-being of the children in their care.

This latest report, which looks at the last six months of 2013, found the agency’s performance slipping in terms of quickly starting these investigations and interviewing the children. The report also pointed to rising caseloads for state workers, which likely contributed to the delays in investigations, Lustbader said.

Georgia has been experiencing problems with investigations across the entire DFCS system, as recently reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The report showed these problems occur not only with investigations into neglect and abuse in the general public, but extend into the state foster care system, as well.

Last month, The AJC reported that almost half the state's child abuse and neglect investigations — more than 3,000 — were past the mandated 45 days for completion, raising concerns that children are being left in unsafe homes.

To whittle the backlog, DFCS Interim Director Bobby Cagle ordered all agency investigators to work a minimum of eight hours of overtime a week until it's eliminated. Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal approved the hiring of 100 new child protective service workers to handle the problems in the system, which adds a total of 275 new caseworkers to the agency.

The monitors’ report noted some improvements, as well, in keeping children assigned to the same caseworker and in meeting children’s health care needs, which has been a long-standing problem for DFCS.

The rate of abuse and neglect in Georgia’s foster care system has fluctuated in recent years but showed improvement in this latest report.

“The division remains committed to improving its practices and its oversight of the foster care system,” said DFCS spokeswoman Ashley Fielding. She added the agency will continue “to focus in on opportunities that will improve the quality of life of Georgia’s most vulnerable children.”