Opinion: Foster care’s problematic inquiry

Congressional inquiry isn’t giving Georgia’s system a fair hearing.
Barry Maguire/NewsArt



Barry Maguire/NewsArt

A headline-grabbing inquiry by U.S. senators Jon Ossoff and Marsha Blackburn into the human rights of foster children has catapulted Georgia’s family and children’s services agency into the national spotlight, raising devastating questions about the potential for abuse and neglect of vulnerable youth.

Ossoff’s probe is merited — foster children often suffer enormous emotional and physical trauma, ranging from a parent’s death to sex and labor trafficking, and governments across the country sometimes fail in their first and greatest duty to protect innocent youth — but the investigation’s apparent motives are deeply troubling.

Ostensibly a national, bipartisan look at America’s overburdened foster system, the Senate’s investigation has instead exclusively focused on Georgia (whose current governor is a rumored potential rival to the first-term senator) to the detriment of other states whose systems are objectively inferior to our own. Georgia’s capacity, compliance and safety challenges are identical to those in Tennessee, California, New York, or Florida. In many cases, Georgia outperforms its peers, but you wouldn’t know that from the senate’s curiously fixated investigation.

Richard L. Jackson

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

I know foster care as only a foster kid can. Like many children who enter the system, my mother was a kind woman but plagued by demons from which she sought comfort at the bottom of a bottle. By age 13, I had witnessed enough bloody domestic disputes to last me a lifetime, so I scraped together the cash for a taxi ride to a state-run juvenile home. I spent the next six years bouncing through placements until I found a family that gave me the security I’d craved my entire life. That blessing led to others, and in 2010, after a successful career in business, I started working with Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services to help ensure positive outcomes for other foster youth.

Over the last 13 years, I’ve worked directly with three DFCS commissioners across multiple administrations and have come to understand Georgia’s family services challenges and triumphs better than almost anyone. That’s why I was initially pleased when Sen. Ossoff launched what was promoted as a national inquiry into foster care and even sat for an interview with Senate staff as a foster care expert.

Senators Ossoff and Blackburn have now held three hearings in as many weeks to discuss their investigation and to consider the testimony of 11 witnesses. All three hearings, totaling six hours, focused exclusively on Georgia, and 10 of the 11 witnesses hailed from the state. Never mind the more than two dozen states that house high-needs foster youth in jail cells and office buildings or the 20,000 children who disappear from foster care every year across the country.

Unlike some, I have nothing to win or lose politically from telling you the whole truth about foster care in Georgia, so here’s the context you deserve but were denied.

A February 2023 report by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed Georgia’s performance was better than the national standard for maltreatment in care, recurrence of maltreatment in care, placement stability and re-entry into foster care. Under its current leadership, Georgia DFCS set a national example to end the so-called practice of hoteling in which high-needs foster kids are housed in offices and hotels. Unlike its peers, Georgia transparently addressed the crisis and drove hotel placements to zero this year. Under that same leadership, DFCS created a new policy of paying tens of millions for healthcare when Medicaid denied services; instituted the most significant technology overhaul in 20 years; designed world-class adoption software to connect potential adoptive parents to needy children and streamlined foster parent re-certification to continue meeting capacity needs.

Sen. Ossoff made an explosive announcement last month that 1,790 children in foster care in Georgia went missing between 2018 and 2022, according to data provided by the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). This data point, while shocking, lacks crucial context because the same report indicated that 99 percent of missing children were located.

A separate May 2022 report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 1,357 foster children went missing in Georgia between July 2018 and December 2020, indicating a sharp decline under current leadership. That same report also showed that 13,011 foster children went missing in Florida, 2,168 went missing in Tennessee, 5,062 went missing in Connecticut, 10,585 went missing in Illinois and 3,350 went missing in Massachusetts.

One missing child is one too many, particularly when these children are vulnerable to substance abuse or being trafficked without adequate intervention. But because the Senate did not engage DFCS in reviewing the NCMEC data, the public wasn’t told what percentage of those children were positively located quickly by the agency or the nature of those placement absences (like the times I ran away from my own foster homes and would have been classified as missing).

Thanks to the tireless work of DFCS Commissioner Candice Broce, the foster care system in Georgia today is far superior to the one that cared for me and often beats similarly-sized states. The great irony of the Senate’s investigation is its deleterious effect on the morale of Georgia’s front-line caseworkers, who pour themselves into the mission of protecting our kids and now find themselves taking fire from Washington. The Senate’s singular fixation on Georgia does a disservice to the public conversation about foster care and to vulnerable foster youth across the country. Georgia’s foster children have already suffered too much to be used as political pawns.

Rick Jackson is founder and chief executive officer of Jackson Healthcare. He spent six years in Georgia’s foster care system. Jackson provided seed investment and ongoing support to FaithBridge, a faith-based child placement foster agency and serves as chairman of Fostering Success Act Inc., which supports Georgians aging out of foster care.