Georgia foster care reform bill passed by state House of Representatives
Several Atlanta News First Investigates reports uncovered the practice of housing teens in government offices for weeks or even months without a bed or going to school.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A proposed law dealing with how and when children enter the foster care system in Georgia has been passed by the state House.
The bill, SB 133, was introduced after a series of months-long Atlanta News First Investigates reports on the practice of office hoteling: housing teens in Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) offices for weeks or even months without a bed and without going to school. Numerous police reports documented kids doing drugs, fighting each other, fighting workers, and running away.
The bill passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 102-69, on the legislature’s final day of the session, known as Sine Die.
The bill would require the courts to “consider on record” what services have already been provided to the child or their guardian, consider what services are needed, and what services remain available to help the child remain with the family. The court system would have to do all of that before even considering whether to send the child into the custody of the state - Georgia’s foster care system known as DFCS.
That’s because Atlanta News First investigates found kids were being sent into state custody as the ‘lesser of two evils.’ Kids dealing with mental and behavioral issues would go before a juvenile judge, who was faced with two options: send the child to detention or state custody (foster care system). Juvenile judges chose state custody as the better alternative, hoping the child would get help instead of punishment.
That loophole would be closed, say supporters of SB 133, when the law takes effect if/when Gov. Brian Kemp signs it.
“Addressing housing for foster kids is bigger than just this bill,” said state Sen. Brian Strickland, who introduced the bill.
After weeks of negotiating and multiple amendments, Strickland argues the final version of the bill ensures fair rights for families.
“This bill is not the end-all solution to solving all the problems that we have with housing and foster children but it’s a big step in hopefully helping a lot of these cases,” Strickland said.
- ORIGINAL REPORT: Unfit for living: Why kids under DFCS care were housed in offices
Earlier this year, U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) sent a letter to Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), demanding answers into several of the agency’s practices, including housing kids in DFCS care in department offices.
“I think that without investigative reporting for example by Atlanta News First, this might not have come to light,” Ossoff said. “We’re not talking about statistics, we’re talking about babies, we’re talking about young children. We’re talking about vulnerable adolescence.”
MORE COVERAGE OF FOSTER CARE FROM ATLANTA NEWS FIRST
- Senate passes bill reforming Georgia’s foster care custody
- Jon Ossoff, Marsha Blackburn demanding answers from Georgia DFCS
- He was in state custody sleeping in a DFCS office. Now he’s speaking out
- Kids in DFCS care running away, falling victim to sex trafficking
Atlanta News First Investigates also has revealed Georgia’s foster care system is overburdened because kids experiencing mental or behavioral health issues have juvenile court cases which typically end in two ways: go to a detention facility or go into DFCS custody. Judges often choose DFCS custody.
In January, DFCS Commissioner Candace Broce said office hoteling practice cost the state $28 million last year and also resulted in an unprecedented burnout of caseworkers and resources.
Back in August, Atlanta News First Investigates reported on the practice of office hoteling. A subsequent investigation also determined the kids who ran away from those offices have become victims of sex trafficking, a systemic issue within the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, the state agency tasked with protecting kids.
The Georgia DFCS is overseen by the state Department of Human Services (DHS).
In the federal inquiry, Georgia foster care leaders had until March 10, 2023, to submit records on office hoteling, caseloads, and caseworker reviews.
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