Gov. Brian Kemp addresses the Georgia 2020 General Assembly. The governor has made overhauling the state’s foster care system one of his priorities for this legislative session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Kemp begins rolling out Georgia foster care overhaul bills

Gov. Brian Kemp has begun rolling out several pieces of legislation that aim to overhaul the state’s foster care system, starting by encouraging more Georgians to care for children in need by making it easier to hire child care.

A trio of bills were filed in the House last week that begin to shape Kemp’s plans for the changes he believes need to be made to improve the state’s foster care program.

Kemp said after signing last year’s legislation that would limit access to abortion in Georgia that he wants to ensure the expected uptick in the number of children being born is taken care of.

“As a pro-life governor, I am proud of our efforts to protect the unborn,” Kemp said in a statement. “Now, we must champion the most vulnerable among us when they leave the delivery room.”

Three bills in a package of legislation have been filed so far.

House Bill 912 would allow foster parents to leave children in their care with a babysitter for up to three days without having to get approval through the state Division of Family and Children Services. Current law limits that time to two days.

House Bill 913 would drop the age requirement for potential adoptive parents from 25 to 21. A third bill, House Bill 911, would make it illegal for a foster parent to engage in a sexual activity with those in their care, closing a loophole the legislation’s sponsor said exists once a child in foster care turns 16 — Georgia’s legal age of consent.

Reyahd Kazmi with the National Youth Advocate Program said the biggest challenge for foster parents is the low daily payments, but he welcomed the other changes being addressed.

“We commend Gov. Kemp and his administration on the proposed changes they’ve outlined as we believe they will benefit not only foster parents and the system generally, but most importantly, the children, youth, and families of Georgia who are served by our organization and others,” Kazmi said in an email.

Kemp said the goal of the legislation is to build upon the changes made to the state’s adoption system in 2018. That legislation was focused on reducing adoption waiting times, legalizing the reimbursement of birth mothers for their expenses in private adoptions, banning middlemen who profit from arranging adoptions and simplifying out-of-state adoptions.

“Our aim is clear: keep our kids safe, encourage adoption and ensure that every young Georgian can live in a safe, happy and loving home,” he said.

Acworth Republican state Rep. Ed Setzler, who is sponsoring HB 911, said the goal of the package of legislation is to make foster care and adoption in Georgia the “best in the nation.”

State Rep. Bert Reeves, the Marietta Republican who shepherded the 2018 adoption overhaul, said some of this year’s legislation is aimed at making small changes that make life easier for both foster parents and children in foster care.

Reeves said HB 912, which he is sponsoring, aims to make it easier for foster parents to take a weekend trip or handle an out-of-town emergency without submitting the person providing child care to the DFCS approval process — which can range from undergoing a background check to the agency inspecting the home. The child care provider would have to be at least 18 years old.

Setzler said he filed HB 911 to close “potentially dangerous loopholes” where there currently is no legal recourse if a foster parent has sexual contact with a child in his or her care. The legislation imposes penalties depending on the extent of the offense, up to 25 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines when the child is older than 16.

“We treasure the foster parents in our state,” Setzler said. “But it’s our job as a Legislature to be mindful of the rare circumstances when those things happen, that we’ve got the legal provisions in place to cut that off and hold them accountable.”

More legislation is in the works, including a proposal to increase the tax credit for adoptions out of the state foster care system from $2,000 to $6,000 for the first five years. The incentive would then drop back to $2,000 a year until the child turns 18.

“Fostering a child is a very special calling, and we need to empower more people to answer that call,” said Reeves, who often introduces bills in the governor’s behalf. “We also need to do a better job of making life as easy as possible for those who have already answered that calling. We’re trying to simplify some of these unnecessarily complicated things.”

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