Tuesday, March 16, 2010

CR tries to undermine foster care reform in Georgia


Several years ago, the Georgia child welfare system, which never was very good, was plunged into chaos by a foster-care panic. It was the usual scenario: high-profile child abuse deaths and bad leadership at the child welfare agency, with one extra element: The state's first "Child Advocate," Dee Simms – who pushed long and hard for taking away more children – encouraged the panic at every turn. For details, see our report on Georgia child welfare, a report which may have contributed to Simms' departure.

Fortunately, state leaders wised up and the state Department of Family and Children's Services (DFCS) began a long, slow reform process.

The result: a reduction in entries into foster care accompanied by significant improvements in child safety, based on the standard measure used by the federal government: reabuse of children within a specified time frame.

One of the strategies: Differential response, a practice in use across the country, by which less serious allegations are diverted from the formal CPS system. Differential response (or alternative response, as it also sometimes is called) is best practice in child welfare. A recent report by the highly-respected Vera Institute of Justice found that study after study of differential response concluded that it does not compromise safety.

Earlier this year, even Florida's Child Abuse Death Review Committee, a group that is independent of the state child welfare agency and chaired by someone who, in the past, has been fanatical about pushing for child removal, concluded that Florida's pilot differential response program improved child safety.

Safer kids, less disruption of families. Who could be against that? The group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights," apparently. They've put out an inflammatory press release claiming that Georgia "may" be "endangering" thousands of children by using an approach to differential response, called "diversion" – instead of forcing the children into foster care.


CR has gone to court to begin a process that appears designed to shovel ever more children into foster care – even though the independent monitor overseeing CR's own consent decree in Atlanta says the big child safety problem is abuse in foster care itself.

Right now CR is simply seeking further information – information the monitors refuse to help them get. I fear CR will misuse whatever information they get. I think they'll hype it, sensationalize it and take it out of context.

They should get it anyway.

NCCPR believes that almost every record maintained by a child welfare agency should be a public record, and there can be no exceptions based on our, or anyone else's, belief that someone will take the information out of context. Rather, the solution is to provide the missing context, as loudly and vigorously as possible.


Just two months ago, the monitors for CR's Atlanta settlement issued their latest report. It was scathing in its assessment of abuse – not in diversion cases, but in foster care. Indeed, CR's Associate Director, Ira Lustbader declared that

We are extremely concerned that children in the Atlanta foster care system are simply not safe, and that DFCS is not doing enough to provide the necessary safety net for the vulnerable youth whose lives and well-being depend on it. If DFCS fails to address this problem quickly, we are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to protect these kids from further harm.

But now, less than two months later, the action CR is taking appears designed to force more children into the very system CR itself says is unsafe.


Ignoring the monitor for its own decree, CR has chosen to rely instead on a selective reading of a series of reports from OCA.

One of those reports, by far the most inflammatory, came from Simms. But the others come from her successor, former Juvenile Court Judge Tom Rawlings. And those reports, while flawed, deserve respect. There are some sound recommendations, and the tone is a huge break from Simms' hype and finger-wagging. Rawlings even acknowledged the foster care panic, and the harm it did.

But even Rawlings' reports rely heavily on horror stories – instances called to his attention in which a case should not have been diverted and tragedy followed. That doesn't tell us how prevalent the problem is, or how often the problem is the opposite: children in cases that should have been diverted instead subjected to traumatic investigations and needless foster care.

And only when pressed by DFCS did Rawlings fully acknowledge the very real improvements in child safety under the DCFS reforms. Not only is reabuse down in cases formally opened by DFCS, the reabuse rate is the same in diversion cases.

In addition, Georgia still "substantiates" child abuse cases at a rate roughly equal to the national average. So what this really tells us is that "diversion" actually is doing more to widen the net of intervention into families than to narrow it. The data suggest that far more of the diversion cases would have gotten nothing under the old system than would have gotten a full-scale investigation.

Nevertheless, Rawlings found real problems in the diversion process. Just because you call something "differential response" doesn't make it so. Rawlings found a lack of statewide standards. That's a common problem in Georgia child welfare. It's supposed to be state-run, but in fact it's less a statewide system than 159 county fiefdoms.

Georgia has contracted with an outside expert to design a statewide system based on best practice in other states. OCA should monitor the process and make sure it's implemented. That's a far better approach than the one taken by CR, where they seem intent on scaring Georgians away from a safe, proven alternative to needless foster care.


As I said, I believe DFCS is wrong to fight the request for information. According to CR, DFCS is arguing that the issue is beyond the scope of the consent decree. I don't know their basis for that argument, but my guess is they're claiming that the consent decree covers only children already in foster care. If that is DCFS' claim, I think I know where they got the idea: From CR, which for years claimed it couldn't litigate on behalf of children not already in foster care (a view they only recently seem to have changed).

Of course CR only made that claim when the issue was fighting to keep children out of foster care. Apparently, it's just fine to litigate on behalf of children not yet in foster care when you're fighting to put them in.