OPINION: Sen. Ossoff whacks the complex, troubled pinata known as DFCS

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff’s recent hearings concerning Georgia’s always-embattled child welfare agency reminds me of the Harlem Globetrotters playing their perpetual opponent, the Washington Generals: Both the senator and the Globetrotters are sure to score lots of points.

Flogging the Division of Family and Children Services is a time-honored tradition in both politics and news reporting. The agency is charged with protecting the offspring of dysfunctional adults, and shocking cases of neglect, abuse and even death regularly become public.

In recent weeks, Ossoff has scored big.

First, there was news that 1,780 children under DFCS care were reported “missing” from foster care between 2018-2022. That sounded horrifying.

Then, in a second hearing, two juvenile court judges alleged that DFCS director Candice Broce asked a roomful of juvenile judges if they might consider keeping some kids with special needs — those who can’t easily be fostered — in detention longer so the state can figure out what to do with them.

The charge was explosive, making Broce look like a poorhouse warden in Charles Dickens’ England.

Like I said, DFCS is a large, opaque bureaucracy that often screws up badly and will continue to, no matter who is in charge. And like many other things in life — and especially when considering DFCS — there are wrinkles, backstories and context involved.

I called Tom Rawlings, a former juvenile judge and the previous DFCS director. He pointed me to an article he had just finished. In that, he said Georgia had between 10,000 and 14,000 kids in foster care during those years and that an average of 358 kids, especially teens, run away each year: That’s about 3%. He noted the national average for states runs between 1% and 7%.

The other allegation, about wanting to keep kids locked up, is where things get complicated. One issue brought up in the hearings was “hoteling,” the practice of placing kids in hotels when there’s nowhere else. (They have live-in support.) Many have behavioral issues and are hard to place in foster homes.

Part of the conundrum stems from good intentions from former Gov. Nathan Deal, who pushed legislation in 2013 to limit the number of “unruly” kids kept in detention. Back then, a DFCS worker told a blogger the change would carry unforeseen consequences, flooding foster care and that “they’re probably all going to be maximum watchful oversight (a term for certain foster homes), and we only have 117 facilities that are built for that.”

Or maybe hotels. Broce tried to get out in front of the issue and end hoteling, which has cost tens of millions of dollars, as did the program of renting hotels.

Broce tells me she doesn’t recall asking the judges to keep troubled kids in detention longer and cried after hearing the allegations.

In a long written statement she said, “it was a brainstorming session where – among many topics – some judges talked about how tough it is to serve kids with complex needs — repeat runaways, gang members, fire-starters, those with serious physical or sexual aggression – who are about to be released from detention, and their parents refuse to pick them up or they’re scared that they can’t keep the child or their family safe.”

She added: “Some (judges) opined that they can extend detention in scenarios akin to what I just described so that everyone has more time to find the right services for the child to go back home or for DFCS to find the right ‘placement.’ Some felt that using detention in that way is proper; some didn’t.”

Broce also issued a letter calling Ossoff’s hearing “political.”

Well, of course they are, but as Rawlings said, “any publicity on this issue is good publicity.”

New reports show child advocates have major concerns with Ga. DFCS

Melissa Carter, a former ombudsman for the state’s child welfare system and an Emory Law professor, thinks Ossoff is sincere because, “No one has ever won or lost an election on the issue of child welfare.”

She testified at Ossoff’s hearing. She spoke of “routine failures in our system of care rooted in resource constraints, workforce issues, overburdened legal systems, barriers to healthcare access, inadequate mental and behavioral health services, lack of coordination and communication, outdated and inefficient data systems and technology supports, and complex policy and regulatory schemes.”

Her statement was like the smorgasbord of issues afflicting government bureaucracies, especially DFCS.

The agency, she said, is driven by data, much of it hard to decipher, and decisions are driven by fear. A kid dies, the news comes out and some caseworker’s head rolls. Or their boss’s. Or, ultimately, the Big Boss. I’ve called the DFCS director the state’s “most disposable leader.”

Broce, on the job two years, is a lawyer who had worked for Gov. Brian Kemp and had no background in child welfare before taking the job.

Said Carter, “I think she cares very much, but her lack of background in that field makes it more difficult.”

Broce responded, saying, “I surround myself with people who are, and I defer to their expertise on a daily basis.”

Carter says the child welfare system is “now more compliance-focused, more concerned about optics. It’s a complex system because there’s a lot of legal and regulatory framework. There’s politics. And everyone thinks they know what should be done.”

Ultimately, she said, caseworkers’ must know that leadership has their backs in the tough decisions they make. The agency has been long troubled staff turnover.

The state last week announced it has amassed $16 billion in surpluses. Perhaps a little of that could be used to fix the problem.

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