Sen. Jon Ossoff: New Georgia missing children data ‘deeply troubling’

U.S. Senate subcommittee hears testimony in first public hearing in Jon Ossoff-led federal probe.
Georgia’s child welfare crisis has set off alarms at the national level.
Published: Oct. 25, 2023 at 10:56 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 27, 2023 at 5:33 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Georgia’s child welfare crisis has set off alarms at the national level as federal leaders are continuing an investigation into the safety of the state’s foster children.

The investigation came after a series of Atlanta News First Investigates reports, and Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff on Friday said, “This is not an investigation about statistics and bureaucratic language and terminology. This is an investigation about children.”

Ossoff made his comments in a speech outside of Covenant House Georgia, just two days after a U.S. Senate human rights subcommittee public hearing in Washington, D.C.

Ossoff also shared new findings from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

According to the data compiled at request of the subcommittee, 1,790 Georgia kids were reported missing from state custody between 2018 to 2022. The numbers remained relatively steady, at more than 300 kids each year. The peak came in 2020, with 431 reports of missing youth from Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS).

“These numbers are deeply troubling because these are more than numbers,” Ossoff said. “These are children.”

Atlanta News First Investigates revealed those children can often end up on the streets falling victim to sex trafficking. FBI Atlanta previously confirmed in its metro sting operations in the last year, of the kids rescued, about a dozen were considered foster youths.

Ossoff said he released the new findings in front of Covenant House Georgia to highlight the work the nonprofit is already doing. The group helps youth suffering from homelessness and exploitation.

Ossoff said the federal investigation into Georgia’s foster care system is still in its early phases. “I don’t think we’re in a position at this specific time to make policy recommendations, but positive change begins with the truth,” he said.

DFCS has long denied systemic failures. However, when it comes to missing and trafficked youth, the agency previously pointed to its work with law enforcement and state taskforces as well as training for caseworkers to provide resources.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights heard testimony from witnesses in the first public hearing since the announcement of the federal probe led by Ossoff.

Previous investigations revealed foster kids were forced to live in county offices and subjected to violence and drugs; concerns over how the state reviews and closes abuse cases, plus the impacts of historic agency staffing shortages at DFCS.

On Wednesday, lawmakers said they reviewed DFCS recent audits which showed 87 percent of the time the agency does initiate “timely investigations” of abuse and neglect.

But Ossoff said the agency “systematically failed to actually assess and address risks and safety concerns in the vast majority of cases.”

Four Georgia witnesses appeared at the hearing: Mon’a Houston, former foster youth from the city of Savannah; Rachel Aldridge, a parent from the city of Wray; Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory Law Barton Child Law and Policy Center; and Emma Hetherington, director of Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic.

Houston told senators case workers overmedicated her and placed her in a mental health facility where she was in isolation.

“The isolation was similar to a jail cell,” Houston said. “I was treated as a cell mate. I wasn’t allowed to shower. This was the darkest time in placement.”

Aldridge, who filed a lawsuit over the death of her toddler Brooklyn, accused DFCS of “not honoring its responsibility,” and said DFCS placed her two-year-old in the custody of the father and his girlfriend. The girlfriend, Amanda Coleman, was later convicted of the child’s murder by a Coffee County jury.

“Brooklyn would still be alive if DFCS would have listened to me,” Aldridge said.

The experts talked about the psychological effects on children after being in state custody, they also pleaded for continued federal oversight.

Current DFCS administration did not appear to be present at the hearing, but the agency has denied claims of “systemic failures.”

The subcommittee confirmed there will be future hearings, and said its ultimate goal is reform.

“This bipartisan Senate investigation would not be happening were it not for investigative reporting at Atlanta News First shining a spotlight on this issue, even when no one else was listening or paying attention,” Ossoff said. “It has now led to this substantial ongoing bipartisan Senate investigation to get to the bottom of threats to the health and safety of the most vulnerable children in our state.”

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