Georgia judges accuse foster care agency of trying to break state law
Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff held a second public hearing on the state’s foster care system known as DFCS.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Georgia juvenile judges are accusing the state’s child welfare agency of trying to violate state law, according to testimony in an ongoing federal probe.
“The law is clear about when we detain children,” said Paulding County Juvenile Judge Carolyn Altman who, along with two others, testified Monday about their interactions with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS).
It was the second public hearing of the U.S. Senate Human Rights subcommittee’s investigation into DFCS, led by Georgia U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.
Under oath, Altman detailed an August meeting of more than two dozen judges, in which she alleged DFCS top leadership asked them to keep children in youth detention centers while the state works to find foster homes.
“As judges, we do not lock up children, especially special needs, [just] because we can’t find placement for them,” Altman said.
Ossoff asked a second witness, Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Nhan-Ai Simms, if that was lawful under Georgia law. She replied that it wasn’t.
“If our child welfare system has gotten to the point where we want to extend a child’s time and in detention just because we can’t find a place for them, then something’s wrong, and it’s not working,” Simms said. “We need change.”
The witnesses described how state law indicates a child shall not be detained to punish, treat, or due to a lack of a more appropriate facility.
On Tuesday, DFCS refuted the claims, and sent a letter to Ossoff:
“Yesterday’s testimony on this point was lacking critically important context and accuracy,” the letter said. “Commissioner Broce did not encourage judges to violate state law, and it has never been DFCS policy to punish a child with complex needs through detention.
“She and the participating judges all shared ideas on how to tackle these challenges in a more united front, and the Commissioner asked participants to be involved in legislative efforts to further improve Georgia’s child welfare system,” the letter continued. “To DFCS’s knowledge, yesterday’s witnesses never raised any concerns about the content of this meeting with the Commissioner or with the legislature, despite opportunities to do so. Ultimately, the courts and DFCS are in this fight together, and must stay focused on productive efforts to improve Georgia’s child welfare system.”
Wenona Belton, who recently retired as a Fulton County juvenile judge, is hopeful the federal probe will improve the system.
“I definitely want to see some policy changes,” said Belton, who also outlined her frustrations with a system that “is not working” and that is “placing the burden on children and chastising them when they fail, categorizing them as difficult.”
Altman echoed that same concern, explaining little resources are given to families or the answers given aren’t long term solutions.
“An overuse and misuse of the safety resource plan [is] a short-term fix but then they may not circle back and fully address the problem,” Altman said, adding DFCS administratively closes cases without substantive assistance to the caregiver.
Simms said case closures happen prematurely and too often, and the DFCS “culture prioritizes metrics over safety.”
Atlanta News First Investigates reached out to DFCS on Monday for comment on allegations made during the hearing. On Tuesday, the agency supplied a copy of its letter to the subcommittee:
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