Foster children housed in child welfare offices; officials work to end practice

The Division of Family and Children Services is part of the Georgia Department of Human Services. JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com

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The Division of Family and Children Services is part of the Georgia Department of Human Services. JOSHUA SHARPE/joshua.sharpe@ajc.com

For about a year, teenage foster children who have been deemed to be difficult to place with families have been sleeping in state offices in Fulton County, and the practice had led to unsafe conditions for both the teens and those trying to help them, caseworkers and advocates say.

Atlanta police have responded to 246 calls at the Fulton County Division of Family and Children Services office located on Fairburn Road, according to Atlanta Police Department records. The majority of those calls were for reports of missing people — when foster children left the office where they had been living when they were not supposed to leave.

Children also have been staying at offices in south Fulton County.

The foster children who’ve had to stay in offices, often sleeping on air mattresses in cubicles, have limited access to donated clothing and showers.

Offices in Fulton County had showers, but that’s not always the case. The mother of a child who stayed in the Cherokee County DFCS offices in March said her daughter did not have access to a shower during the two days she stayed there.

Caseworkers in Fulton County said children mostly came and went as they pleased, with some bringing drugs, weapons and animals into the building. Caseworkers said they often dealt with crude and disrespectful comments from the foster children they’re tasked with managing and police had to be called almost every day.

$1,200 a day

Department of Human Services Commissioner Candice Broce said DFCS has been working toward eliminating the practice of housing children in hotels and offices. The child welfare agency is managed by the DHS.

Broce said the agency in late May began offering a $5,000 incentive and increased the daily per diems, to a maximum of about $344 per day, to private providers who take in foster children who have been staying in offices or hotels. Eighty-three children have been placed since the incentives were announced.

Broce said those increased incentives, placing children with providers who can offer the necessary services such as counseling or ensuring school attendance, are a better use of money than paying staff to chaperone a child in an office or hotel where there is no access to services.

DFCS officials estimate it costs an average of $1,200 a day to pay for food and lodging — when staying in a hotel — for each child and the wages of multiple staff members to ensure 24/7 supervision. That also factors in the cost of damage to the buildings, as things are often broken, Broce said.

She said housing the children in a hotel or office “means they’re not able to go to school consistently, they’re away from their peers, they’re not forming those relationships, plus, it causes tremendous strain on staff.”

Broce said there are a variety of hurdles to making sure foster children attend school regularly. Children are often placed in a county that isn’t where they live. Officials also need to determine whether a child will be in an office or hotel for an extended period of time or if they would be placed within a few days, making school enrollment difficult.

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Nowhere else to go

As of Thursday, DFCS officials said there were 54 children staying in hotels across the state and no children living in offices. Broce said the children have difficult medical or behavioral issues and some may also have previous or pending criminal charges.

Some police calls to the Atlanta location are more serious, including arrests of teens for assaulting staff or each other, at least one instance where police reported having to use force to detain a foster child and at least one instance where paramedics had to give two teens naloxone, the drug used to treat opioid overdoses, before taking them to the hospital.

Having foster children sleep in offices is a step beyond the practice known as “hoteling,” where kids who can’t be placed in homes are housed in hotels. Officials say a shortage of foster parents coupled with behavioral issues of children make it difficult to find homes. “Hoteling” gained attention in 2016, when DFCS officials said they would no longer place children in hotels.

“The practice of hoteling (and placing kids in offices) statewide is one I have poured my heart and soul into eradicating,” Broce said. “I will run this agency into the red if that’s what it takes to get these kids out of hotels and offices.”

Broce said she can’t issue a mandate banning kids from being placed in hotels or offices because those children — some of whom have criminal backgrounds — would have nowhere else to go.

‘An ill-equipped group home’

Since 2005, court-appointed monitors have produced independent reports on DFCS’ handling of foster care in DeKalb and Fulton counties every six months as part of a settlement of a lawsuit known as the “Kenny A” case aimed at improving conditions for foster children in those counties.

The settlement also requires that DFCS social workers manage only 12 to 17 cases at a time, but high turnover and vacancy levels have pushed those caseloads up to 40 or 50 in some instances, social workers said.

Placing the additional burden of supervising children in what advocates call an “ill-equipped group home” leads to burnout, which then leads to more vacancies.

“It’s already a job and a half to be a case manager,” said Marnie Grodzin, a Decatur-based social worker who runs the private practice Gathered and Grounded. “There’s potentially a sense of helplessness because there’s only so much that can be done.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the number of foster children taken into care had dropped, most likely due to kids having less contact with people who are mandated to report to authorities when a child might be in danger. Now that children are back in school, day care and playing sports, those numbers have ticked up, but the number of foster parents hasn’t grown, advocates say.

Teens are also typically difficult to place in homes and teens who have behavioral or mental health issues are even more difficult to place, caseworkers and advocates say.

It’s unclear how many children have had to sleep in office cubicles of Fulton County DFCS over the past year because it’s not something DFCS had been tracking cumulatively. According to DFCS documents, at least three children were staying in county offices between Oct. 27, 2021, and Feb. 25, 2022, except for one day in November when only one child was there. Most days had four children staying at the Fulton County offices, though there were many days when up to six foster children slept there.

Statewide during that same time period, an average of 45 children stayed in hotels or offices at night. That number peaked just before Thanksgiving last year when there were 70 children who had not been placed in a foster or group home.

DFCS has since created a job for a staffer to coordinate placement of foster children with “complex needs.” While some may stay for a night or two before they are placed in group homes or with foster families, some teens have stayed for months at a time.

Behavioral aides and caseworkers are tasked with staying overnight to chaperone the children, and they often are the ones who call the police for help when the teens are causing problems.

Of the 246 calls for service to the DFCS office on Fairburn Road made between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 23, 2022, Atlanta police responded to 103 missing child reports. DFCS employees and contractors told officers that even if they know a child is a habitual runaway who returns after a few hours, they are required to report it to police.

One 13-year-old boy with severe mental health issues ran away so often in the six months he had been staying at the office, one officer filed a report urging supervisors to find a more suitable place for him to stay.

“It is my opinion that (the boy) needs to be housed/sheltered in a different setting and facility (that is) designed to deal with his mental health issues and limits his access to sharp objects and other items that can be used as a weapon,” an officer wrote in December 2021. “(His) continued residency at this facility ultimately will lead to someone getting hurt and needs to be addressed by the managing officials of the Department of Family and Children’s Services.”

DFCS officials could not immediately say whether that child was still in foster care or where he might be housed.

‘Safety and structure and being wanted’

Attorneys with Children’s Rights, a children’s advocacy group, say the children that the state places in offices and hotels often have mental health or developmental issues.

“It’s a requirement, both constitutionally and morally, that if you’re going to take kids away from their parents, (the government) needs to meet their needs, including housing,” said Aaron Finch, an attorney with Children’s Rights. “And high-needs youth, especially, need stable places to live in order to thrive.”

The practice isn’t limited to Fulton County.

Rashele Bradshaw said her 15-year-old daughter had to stay two nights in the Cherokee County DFCS office before spending six weeks living in a hotel in March and April. Before being taken into DFCS custody, Bradshaw said her daughter was seeing a therapist several times a week.

Bradshaw’s daughter has been diagnosed with several mental health issues, which have at times caused her to be defiant and taken into DFCS custody off and on for the past 2 1/2 years. Most recently, a social worker could smell marijuana that Bradshaw’s daughter had been smoking.

Bradshaw said her daughter received no counseling while she was living at the office or hotel, did not attend school and could afford mostly fast food due to DFCS allowing children to spend up to $7 for breakfast and lunch and $14 for dinner.

“At the hotel the people were not actually supervising her,” Bradshaw said. “She managed to get vapes and marijuana while she was supposed to be being supervised by these people.”

With DFCS officials committing to ending the practice of housing kids in offices and hotels, advocates say they hope it sticks this time because uncertainty can cause even more emotional damage to children who already are having a tough time in life.

“It all boils down to their sense of having safety and structure and being wanted,” Grodzin said. “(Living in offices creates) a continuing process of traumatizing a child by having no sense of security or sense of where they’re going to be next.”