Kids in DFCS care running away, falling victim to sex trafficking

Our earlier report found kids living in DFCS offices for weeks at a time
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 12:00 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 30, 2022 at 3:00 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Foster children living in metro Atlanta department of family and children services (DFCS) offices for months at a time were doing drugs, stealing, fighting and running away, according to an Atlanta News First investigation.

Back in August, the investigation reported on the practice of office hoteling, in which children under local DFCS care were housed in department offices.

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).

The case of a young girl who ran away earlier this year from a DeKalb DFCS office reveals more about the issue. The girl was reported missing by Coliene, who adopted her in 2017.

When calling 911, Coliene told the dispatcher the girl was “a critical runaway with mental health issues.” She had already called 911 earlier in the day, telling the dispatch operator the girl “ran from DFCS office four days ago.”

DeKalb police found the runaway, now 15, in a motel in the Panthersville area along Ember Drive, next to blighted and abandoned properties. Officers found the child alone in a room with a 52-year-old man.

“This don’t seem right,” an officer is heard describing on bodycam during police response.

“I wouldn’t feel right if we left a 15-year-old with an old dude like that,” one officer said.

An officer took the young girl to the back of a police car. “Did anything go on between you and the gentleman inside?” he asked. The child did not respond. “It’s just a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” he said.

“No,” she replied.

The man inside the motel room claimed no wrongdoing.

“I think it’s bullsh*t. I think he probably saw her out and about. Seen a little something, found somewhere to keep her for the night,” the first officer told the other. The teen was taken by police to a nearby hospital for examination, where a DFCS caseworker met them.

“She also has a history of sex trafficking so that’s why I did advise for my supervisor to bring her here,” the caseworker said. DeKalb police have confirmed the case is under investigation by the Special Victims Unit.

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

“There’s a lot of trauma,” Coliene said, who added the child survived years-long sexual abuse which led to mental and behavioral health issues and eventually landed her before a juvenile court judge.

As CBS46 Investigates uncovered, court cases like these typically end in two ways: go to a detention facility or into DFCS custody. Judges choose what they consider the lesser or two evils: DFCS custody. That’s what happened to Coliene’s teen.

Few resources and placement options leave kids who are in state custody to live in county DFCS offices.

“They’re out there ... selling their body,” Coliene said. “They’re not getting help at all.”

State records show the longest overnight office hoteling in Fulton County was nearly three months. In Dekalb, the longest was nearly two months. The average overnight stay of the two counties combined was about 14 days.

Police records reveal children doing drugs, stealing, engaging in sexual promiscuity, attacking workers and each other, or running away.

“They’re not in a facility that they could get help,” said Coliene. “They’re supposed to be having counseling. Also, they’re supposed to be in school. They’re not.”

This summer, the FBI rescued nearly 30 metro Atlanta children sex trafficked in hotels. The agency identified at least three were reported runaways from DFCS custody.

“Most young people we work with who are trafficking victims have had experience in the foster care system,” said Jennifer Swain, director of Youth Spark, a center for sex abuse survivors that provides wholistic services to kids. The non-profit also serves vulnerable and at-risk minors. Swain advocates for the development of new organizations that can do the same work as Youth Spark.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have enough resources,” she said.

“It’s been happening for years,” said state Rep. Shelly Hutchinson (D-Snellville), “clearly worse than I thought.”

Hutchinson sits on the state House Health and Human Services Committee, which develops legislation affecting DFCS and DHS. Hutchinson, who is running for reelection, said she will work for new mental, behavioral, and placement facilities for foster children.

“If we can focus on this issue, maybe we can get money in the budget to create some places that we need,” Hutchinson said.

In 2002, Children’s Rights, an independent nonprofit organization, filed a lawsuit, later amended in 2003, on behalf of local foster children against the state for its housing and placement conditions within DeKalb and Fulton DFCS. More than 20 years ago, minors who could not be placed were sent to shelters plagued with similar problems like today’s offices, drugs, abuse and violence, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit settlement agreed to reform and put Georgia DFCS under “monitoring,” including incremental reports of corrections, successes, and challenges. The monitoring is still ongoing and required.

Georgia DFCS issued this statement:

“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 to do what is in their best interests and help reduce the trauma created by family separation or placement disruption.

“For young adults, we strive to take their wishes into consideration to ensure they are comfortable with the placement. There have, unfortunately, been times where we have had no caregivers willing and/or able to meet the needs of our youth. We can open the search to group home providers if a youth is 13 or older but in emergency situations may utilize temporary options while we search for an appropriate setting.

“Many children and young adults who enter state custody have experienced significant trauma. This trauma can – and often does – manifest as extremely challenging behavioral issues which can result in runaway episodes.

“If a child runs away, the state is required to notify law enforcement immediately but within 24 hours. The state sends a photo and contact information for parents and friends to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children within 24 hours. Staff also notify the child’s school and family. Once the child is located, they are placed in a safe location, given a health assessment, and screened to determine if they are a possible victim of sex trafficking. If a child is identified as a victim of sex trafficking, we report this to law enforcement immediately and in no case later than 24 hours after receiving information.

“DHS partners with Gov. Brian Kemp, First Lady Marty Kemp, and the GRACE Commission in the effort to combat human trafficking in Georgia. We require all of our employees to take the First Lady’s Human Trafficking Awareness Training to become better informed about the issue, how to identify potential instances, and who to contact.

“As for the issue of ‘hoteling,’ we ended office stays for youth in Fulton and DeKalb earlier this year. We have since had a few young adults from those counties with hotel stays. We continue to work with our provider network to build capacity to have a robust continuum and eliminate the need for office or hotel stays for any Georgia child in foster care. Supporting this, we announced a statewide marketing campaign in August to help recruit and retain more foster parents for youth in state custody.”

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