Half of child abuse probes taking too long

Almost half the state’s child abuse and neglect investigations — more than 3,000 at last count — are past the mandated 45 days for completion, raising concerns that children are being left in unsafe homes, officials said Tuesday.

“Each of these overdue cases represents a potential risk for vulnerable children in our state, and this requires swift action on our part,” said Bobby Cagle, the newly appointed interim head of the state Division of Family and Children Services. “We must make sure these children are in a safe situation as soon as possible.”

To that end, Cagle announced that agency investigators will work a minimum of eight hours of overtime a week until the backlog is eliminated. He anticipates the backlog will be almost fully resolved by the end of July, he said, and that the added cost to the state will be about $2 million.

Even as child welfare advocates praised the move, they doubted that it is enough to turn around an agency careening from crisis to crisis. They also worried that unfinished investigations have compromised the safety and well-being of children at risk.

Some pointed to the recent death of 5-year-old Heaven Woods, who died less than three weeks after the agency opened a probe into allegations that her mother abused her physically. The mother and her boyfriend have been charged in the girl’s death.

Overdue investigations are often a symptom of deeper problems in a child protection agency — such as high caseloads and inadequate staffing. If not corrected, such pressures can lead workers to rush through their duties, performing “drive-by” social work.

“Caseworkers need the right amount of time to make difficult decisions,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. “Drive-by visits are not acceptable.”

In recent months, DFCS has confirmed reports that in some counties, workers are juggling far more than the 12 to 17 cases the agency considers workable. In a few instances, workers have been saddled with more than 100 cases.

Problems have been building for at least a year in some counties, said Ira Lustbader, associate director of Children’s Rights, an advocacy group. Several years ago, the group filed a lawsuit that led to court monitoring of the DFCS offices in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

“Having a large number of overdue cases is a red flag. It’s an alarm to look deeper,” he said.

Reports of child abuse and neglect have risen 27 percent over the past year, from an average of 6,600 reports per month to 8,400, but staffing levels have remained largely the same, according to DFCS. Officials attributed the increase to the implementation of a central call-in center and increased attention to child abuse issues in the media.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered numerous instances in which agency errors were linked to children’s deaths.

And the child protection arm of DFCS isn’t the only one in disarray. The agency only recently escaped federal penalties related to a huge backlog in processing applications for food stamps. In that instance, too, DFCS paid millions of dollars in overtime to get the backlog under control.

Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center, praised the new DFCS director for taking a “bold step toward child safety.”

Still, she worried that a short-term infusion of cash will not be enough to undo the damage done by millions of dollars in cuts in recent years. Her doubts stand, she said, even though Gov. Nathan Deal has promised to hire 500 DFCS caseworkers over the next three years.

In response, DFCS officials noted that Cagle is performing a top-to-bottom review of the agency and will present the governor with any other steps he feels are necessary to fulfill its mission to keep children safe.

Under Deal’s predecessor, Sonny Perdue, DFCS’ caseload first ballooned to heights that left caseworkers overwhelmed and the agency in crisis. Perdue brought in a new leader, who scaled back dramatically the number of children removed from their homes, arguing that the state makes a poor parent, and it’s better to educate an at-risk child’s actual parents to do the job right.

Since Deal took office in 2010, Georgia has been swinging gradually back in the get-tough direction. That shift has come without a commensurate increase in the amount of resources devoted to the agency, the AJC has previously reported.

Deal appointed Cagle this month with explicit orders to put children’s safety over trying to strengthen troubled families rather than break them apart. Unlike previous DFCS directors, who operated within the state Department of Human Services, Cagle reports directly to the governor’s office.

Advocates who agree with Deal’s directive still fret that the agency is ill equipped to carry it out, given the almost certain uptick in investigations, open cases and children taken into state foster care.

“We’d like to have a system that doesn’t have to come to a crisis before it gets the public and political attention it needs,” Carter said.

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