Unfit for living: Why kids under DFCS care were housed in offices

CBS Investigates reveals allegations of crime, fights, drugs, abuse are prominent in office hoteling of kids in local DFCS custody
Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 12:00 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 19, 2022 at 9:04 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - As Georgia’s foster care system remains overburdened, a three-month-long CBS46 investigation uncovered children living in Fulton County offices for weeks to months at a time.

But the investigation also revealed instances of drugs, children running away, stealing, fighting workers and each other, conditions which seemingly stem from practice with little oversight.

“It’s just incompetency on the state’s part because this whole situation is just f**ked,” an Atlanta police officer can be heard on body camera while responding to a Fulton County office of the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS).

A DFACS caseworker replies, “It is. It really is.”

The February footage is just a part of the records obtained by CBS46 Investigates which exposed a pattern of chaos at county DFCS offices this year:

  • “We got a fight going on up here,” a DFCS worker yelled during a 911 call.
  • In another incident, a frantic DFCS worker tells dispatch, “She hit me in my face; my lip is bleeding.”
  • “It’s already bad enough y’all got us here,” a child in DFCS custody complained in a 911 call.
  • “Damn,” a South Fulton Police officer exclaimed while surveying the living conditions of children located at a Fulton DFCS office in College Park.

From the police who respond to calls at the offices; to the teens housed there; and the staff who say they were ill-equipped, Fulton DFCS offices were repeatedly turned into homes, offices which inspectors confirm were unfit for living in the first place.

“I was very unprepared. I had no idea what I was supposed to do,” a whistleblower exclusively told CBS46. “It was crazy.”

She began working at a Fulton DFCS office this year as a behavioral aid, assigned to monitor a foster child. In fear of retaliation, she asked CBS46 Investigates not to reveal her identity or name or which Fulton office she served.

The whistleblower thought she was hired to serve kids in dorms or organized units. She says it was anything but.

“I assumed there was an area for them to stay in... that was more like rooms,” she said. “It wasn’t.” In some cases, CBS46 Investigates found there were blowup mattress on office floors; in others, blankets became make-shift beds, or cots.

CBS46 investigates confirmed kids as young as 12 had been housed in at least one county office.

“My child was in her room and two other girls came in to fight her and no one did anything about it,” said the whistleblower.

CBS46 Investigates obtained body camera, 911 calls and incident reports, all documenting a pattern resulting from long-term stay of foster teens at the DFCS offices in College Park and Atlanta, a practice called office hoteling.

“We’re staying here because they don’t have nowhere else for us to go so we’re living here,” one teen told a 911 dispatcher.

This year, both Atlanta and South Fulton police responded to Fulton County DFCS offices more than 100 times. Atlanta police body camera shows just how perpetual police responses became.

“I’m so tired of coming here, bruh,” the officer told his colleague. “I’m so tired of coming here,”

“Yeah,” his partner replied.

On this occasion, police were called because a teen girl was experiencing a mental and behavioral crisis. DFCS staff told police the girl vandalized the building.

The officers asked the girl if she wanted to Grady Memorial Hospital for help.

“So, I’m just trying to make sure everything is good,” the officer said. “It’s not, but it’s nothing you can help me with,” the girl, who was ultimately left in DFCS custody, responded.

State data reveals the practice of office hoteling was happening last year not only in Fulton, but across the state.

Data showed this year, average stay for teens in Fulton offices was 16 days; the statewide average was 20 days. In 2021, the average stay for teens in Fulton offices was 12 days, and the statewide average was 20 days.

The longest period of office hoteling in Fulton was more than two and a half months. Across Georgia, it was more than four months.

“The children are in the room with the door closed, so I opened the door,” an upset case worker told South Fulton Police during a response. “They’re all sitting there like they at the projects somewhere smoking a big fat blunt.”

“They feel like they’re unwanted because they just drop you off in an office and no adult cares,” the whistleblower said.

During CBS46′s investigation, Tinaddine Paul-Bazil, director of Fulton DFCS, submitted her first resignation letter on May 6, which would have been effective June 17.

But on June 2, she submitted a second resignation letter, pushing up her effective date to June 7. Paul-Bazil did not cite office-hoteling concerns or conditions as reasons for her resignation.

State leaders for DFCS did not interview with CBS46 Investigates. So we took our findings to the independent agency which investigates DFCS itself, the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate (OCA).

“After seeing those places, interviewing those kids, we had an emergency meeting with state DFCS leadership and (state Department of Human Services) leadership and asked those kids be moved out,” confirmed OCA Director Jerry Bruce.

Bruce was once a juvenile judge in north Georgia and a special assistant attorney general for DFCS offices in Union, Towns and Rabun counties. He has extensive experience with the system that has about 10,000 kids in Georgia foster care.

“I mean no, you can’t say it won’t happen again,” Bruce claimed. And the reason why is tied to systemic responses related to juvenile justice.

CBS46 investigates found kids experiencing mental or behavioral health issues have juvenile court cases which typically proceed in two ways: go to a detention facility or go into DFCS custody. Bruce claims neither of these options are effective but juvenile judges continue choosing the second option, DFCS custody.

“It’s the lesser of two evils,” Bruce said. “It’s a sort of measure of desperation to try to get these kids and their families help.”

As a result, DFACS is overloaded with cases, understaffed with case workers, and cannot find placement for kids, all the while facing the historic battle of fewer resources with fewer foster families.

All of the children that were housed in the Fulton DFCS offices are now in hotels. Fulton DFCS did not agree to an interview but later answered the following questions via email:

We found as a result of office hoteling in Fulton DFCS offices, police responded to reports of teens fighting each other, teens smoking, teens leaving the building(s), teens hitting workers, and even some concerns of sexual promiscuity. Why did there seem to be no oversight measures to prevent this?

  • The reality is that there is no clear answer or strategy. These are the some of the most challenging and gut-wrenching cases. Trauma can – and often does – manifest as extremely challenging behavioral issues, including self-destructive behavior, lashing out, and delinquent conduct. It is heartbreaking for everyone involved in that child’s life, and sadly makes it even more difficult to find a willing foster family or group homes.

Earlier this year, we ended office stays for youth in Fulton and DeKalb. We have since had a few youths from those counties with hotel stays. We are working with our provider network to build capacity to have a robust placement continuum and eliminate the need for office or hotel stays for any Georgia child in foster care.

What is the policy for the practice of office hoteling? Why is it used?

  • Our staff review all available options regarding where to place a child or young adult when we are given legal custody by a judge and throughout their time in our care. The ultimate goal is always doing what is in their best interests and helping to reduce the trauma created by family separation or a placement disruption. For young adults, we strive to take their wishes into consideration to ensure that they are comfortable with the placement.

Unfortunately, there are times when we find ourselves with no caregivers willing and able to meet the young adult’s needs. Ideally, we want all children and young adults to be with family-based caregivers, but we open the search to group home providers when a youth is 13 or older. In emergency situations, we may have to utilize temporary options while we search for an appropriate setting.

This broad legal authority regarding placement decision-making stems from existing law, protocol, and case-specific court orders given that we serve as a youth’s legal custodian. While there is no singular policy which directly addresses our decision-making process regarding emergency placements, staff are trained to operate within the confines of current law, court orders involving the youth, and practice-based protocols.

What efforts has DFCS made to address the need for more fostering of teens specifically?

During the past three months of us working to understand what’s been going on with DFCS, we learned the directors of Fulton and DeKalb offices resigned. Can you provide comment on why?

  • The DeKalb County DFCS Director is still employed with the agency. The Fulton DFCS Director submitted her resignation in May, and the regional director is filling in on an interim basis while we conduct interviews to find a permanent replacement.

Please share the main success and challenge with adoptions/placement/fostering the agency overall has faced the past two years.

  • Many providers – foster families, kinship placements, and group home facilities – had to limit how many children they could serve due to personal health concerns or COVID-19 workforce challenges. Those issues have waxed and waned throughout the course of the pandemic depending on the provider. Fortunately, our aggressive strategies to reduce hoteling statewide; use flexible funding to pay providers more money to deliver more tailored, seamless care; deploy emergency staffing to those providers; and explore related measures have still driven down our numbers and mitigated the detrimental effects as much as possible.

If there’s something you would like CBS46 investigates to dig into, fill out this submission form.

ANF+ BEHIND THE INVESTIGATION: The practice of housing state foster kids in offices is legal. Why?

ANF+: Office Housing Kids in State Foster Care