Average time children spend in foster care
Hall County: 14.5 months
Georgia: 15 months
Average number of homes a child is placed in (fiscal year 2014)
Hall County: 2.4
Average number of days children spent in each placement (fiscal year 2014)
Hall County: 209
Once a child is taken from parental custody, the Division of Family and Children Services works with parents to develop a plan they must complete in order to get their child back. They are connected with resources like family treatment court and/or nonprofits like Family Ties. Common requirements for them include parenting classes, attaining a stable income and housing, anger management classes and substance abuse counseling. Review hearings are held in Hall County Juvenile Court and judges consider when it is safe for the child to return home.
Lindsey Shubert dialed the numbers.
She knew them by heart, yet her fingers trembled as she made the call.
Every day, she talked to her daughter, Gracie, who lived with Shubert’s mother, but this time, it was the only phone conversation she was allowed for the day, and a jailer stood guard while she spoke.
Gracie started the exchange with a familiar question.
“Mama, where are you?”
Shubert’s voice sagged.
Silence hung heavy on the phone, then the 6-year-old girl adopted an adult tone.
“It’s like this, Mama,” she said. “If you don’t come to my birthday party, I’m done with you.”
The girl slammed down the phone, and her mother shrank back to her cell.
“I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I didn’t come out for three days,” Shubert said.
But when she emerged, she carried a new resolve.
“The only thing I was thinking was that I was going to do it,” she said. “I was going to get Gracie back, and I was going to make it to that birthday party.”
Kids at risk
In Hall County, 618 children have been placed in foster care so far in 2014.
Some 8,300 complaints are made monthly in Georgia to Child Protective Services, kids at risk of missing birthdays, holidays or other special events with their parents.
Gracie became part of these statistics when cops hauled her mother to jail for drug-related charges. Shubert was using meth, drinking hard and partying with friends who encouraged her vices. What she wasn’t doing was caring for her daughter, a precocious brunette who loves cats and coloring.
As Shubert strayed, her parents prayed, and the state granted custody of Gracie to Shubert’s mother. Again, Gracie, then 5, became a number, part of the 32 percent of children in foster care between the ages of 1 to 5, according to the Children’s Rights organization.
Shubert was determined to be a different number.
In Hall County, about 55 percent of children who leave the foster care system are reunited with their families.
“I knew that could be me,” Shubert said. “I wanted to do it.”
Losing her daughter
Shubert had made promises before. Most of them centered around her effort to get clean.
“I was strung out on meth,” she said. “I used off and on since I was 16, and I guess I just didn’t care about much other than getting high.”
Then Gracie was born, and Shubert tackled sobriety.
“Me and her daddy went through family drug court,” she said. “We graduated at the top of our class, and we got married and stayed clean for a long, long time. We did really good for awhile.”
By the time Gracie started kindergarten, though, the couple was using again.
“It was the people,” Shubert said. “We started hanging around with the old crowd. We thought we were strong enough, but we weren’t. All it takes is that one weak moment. If you’re an addict and you keep yourself surrounded by it, it’s just a matter of time before you fail.”
Shubert abandoned her daughter, leaving Gracie with her grandfather, Perry Chumbler.
“It was the most horrible experience, watching her do that,” Chumbler said. “You try to help, and it doesn’t help.”
Ignoring her family’s attempts to help, Shubert kept using, and things spiraled. She said the drugs made her husband abusive, and they separated because of the beatings. Shortly after the split in 2012, she was arrested for possession of meth and drug-related objects. She spent a week in jail before her family paid bail. The state stepped in, giving custody of Gracie to Shubert’s mother. Still lured by drugs, Shubert chose not to fight for her daughter and satisfied herself with daily phone calls to Gracie instead of actual visits.
“All I was thinking about was getting high,” Shubert said. “I mean, I still loved her, but I didn’t think I had a problem. I thought what I was doing was fine.”
Then she landed in jail again, and when she went to make her daily phone call to Gracie, she received a surprise.
“When she told me she was done with me, that ... that was hard,” she said. “I wasn’t there the way I needed to be. And if I wasn’t there for her birthday party, I knew that was the end.”
With no one willing to bail her out a second time, Shubert had no hopes of being released in time for the big day. So, she went to her cell and prayed.
“I kept telling God that if he gave me one more chance, I wouldn’t let him down,” Shubert said. “I told him I wouldn’t let Gracie down.”
In what she said was a miracle, Shubert was called to her court date earlier than anticipated. The day before Gracie’s birthday, she walked out of jail and toward her new life.
Many wayward parents need a jolt like Shubert’s, said DeeDee Mize, executive director at Family Ties in Gainesville. The organization helps parents get straight, whether it be recovering from substance abuse or accomplishing anger management or simply learning better ways of parenting. By providing educational and intervention services, Family Ties seeks to “prevent and break the cycle of abuse and neglect.”
“We want to get to the root cause of what’s going on with these families,” Mize said.
Some 750 families rotate through Family Ties annually. Of those, about 75 percent graduate. The remaining 25 percent have either lost custody, gone to jail, ended up in rehabilitation or on the streets.
“Defining success is difficult,” Mize said. “But when it does happen, it’s usually because they have had an ‘aha’ moment.”
While about 40 percent of parents at Family Ties are recommended by the Division of Family and Children Services after a child is removed from the home, many are self-referrals, recognizing on their own that they need help.
“I believe if somebody is willing to be that parent for that child ... then reunification is important,” Mize said. “Sometimes parents have made a poor choice. They may be in the throes of whatever and just that one time they messed up. I think anybody is deserving of a second chance.”
Getting Gracie back
Shubert did the work — drug and alcohol classes, parenting classes, anger management classes, community service, gaining full-time employment, following her probation requirements, finding quality housing.
“I just decided it was time to grow up,” she said. “I was missing out on everything.”
She turned to Family Ties for help, and she said she was richly rewarded, getting her daughter back on her 7th birthday, an irony not lost on Shubert.
“To be there on her birthday is everything. And Family Ties, they really made a difference to me,” she said. “It was hard work. It was a lot to juggle. But I’ve done it. I know I’ve got this.”
She plans on beating the one number that still looms above her. About one-third of children nationwide who reunify with their parents re-enter foster care within three years, according to Children’s Rights.
But she remains positive, as does her cheerleading section.
“(Shubert) is what we would like to have every parent be like,” Mize said. “She recognized that she needed to be the parent for her child, and she overcame her adversity. She did everything that we, the courts and DFCS asked of her and more. And she never complained about having to do anything. She just wanted to get her daughter back.”
Now that she has her, Shubert plans on being around for many more birthdays to come, and this makes Gracie grin.
“I’m just happy,” Gracie said. “Because she’s out of jail. Because she’s doing better. A lot better. I’m really proud.”