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Broken Bonds: What happens when children are removed from their home
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Available space for foster children (map)

Hall County kids in DFAS care

Special report schedule

Tuesday: Hall County Division of Family and Children Services workers are the first responders to reports of abuse and work directly to remedy the problems.

Wednesday:  Two longtime foster parents share their bittersweet stories.

Thursday: A mother tells of why her child was taken into custody and what it took to get her back. Also, learn about the organizations that help parents get on track.

Friday: Read the story of a child abused but then adopted by a loving family and another story of a man who survived an abusive foster home.

Saturday: Many teenagers are referred to group homes, sometimes because their needs cannot be met in foster care and sometimes because there are no homes available to them.

Sunday: State leaders are looking to address the need for resources, with privatization of foster care high on the list of possibilities.

The removal of a child often results in three types of trauma, according to Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Lindsay Burton.

The first: no longer living in their home.

The second: being split from siblings.

And the third: losing the community and friendships they hold dear.

“Removal is always traumatic for a child: foster care, strangers, possibly a new county, a new school. Because in this area, we have a shortage of foster parents,” said child attorney Kellie Rogers. “All through Northeast Georgia, we’re seeing a lot of children having to be placed a couple of hours away, which of course makes the end goal of reunification even harder.”

A child’s attorney, appointed almost as soon as the child is removed, makes legal decisions on his or her behalf.

“There are really tight timelines in the new juvenile code about children who come into care,” said Kenny Jarvis, Region 2 Division of Family and Children Services director. “There needs to be movement so that the needs of the child can be met and they don’t linger in foster care.”

When removal is needed

Once the call comes in regarding potential abuse or neglect, DFCS investigates to examine the validity and extent of the accusation.

“To remove a child immediately they would have to have evidence of imminent risk, that the child’s safety is in danger. And DFCS can’t just remove a child; we have to have a court order,” said Holly Campolong, DFCS director for Hall and Dawson counties.

After a DFCS lawyer contacts a judge seeking a removal order, the department waits for verbal confirmation. Some decisions are made the same day; others take time.

“It’s going to vary from case to case to case,” Campolong said. “There can be family that we’ve been working for a while and it just kind of deteriorates, and then we have to remove. Or it can be the first day we meet them. You get out there and they’re cooking meth, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, this is unsafe right now, so we have to call this right now.’ There’s not a script or a kind of thing for that. It really depends on the family and what’s going on.”

The instability of the home and substance abuse often go hand in hand, Rogers said.

“Substance abuse in this area has got a fair number,” she said. “We don’t remove for poverty alone, but there are some cases that can be traced back ultimately to issues with unemployment, lack of stable housing and not having family or friends in the area to put a parent and child up.”

When a child lives in a home where there is substance abuse, other dangerous factors come into play, Jarvis said.

“It often brings in criminal activity. It’s concurrent with domestic violence at times,” Jarvis said. “A high percent of our cases will involve substance abuse at some level. That’s really a precipitator a lot of times of kids coming into care if there’s not someone who can mitigate those risks that goes with a substance-abusing parent.”

The goal: To return home

The end goal is to reunite every child with a rehabilitated family so they don’t end up in the system again, Rogers said.

“Some foster parents are hoping for adoption and want to keep the child forever, but I’ve heard lots of foster parents say, ‘I’m the temporary home. If it’s in the child’s best interest to go home, I want to assist that child in going home in any way I can,’” Burton said.

Court-Appointed Special Advocates work to inform the judges of living situations for the children and where they hope to go. Unlike the heavy DFCS caseload, CASA volunteers will often take only one to three cases.

With the shortage of foster care homes in Hall County, face-to-face visits a few times per month are difficult for CASAs. Roy and Marie Mueller, who have both volunteered as CASAs for the last seven years, have driven as far as Augusta on official business. The farthest they’ve driven, they said, was to Boca Raton, Fla., for a long weekend, giving a teenager placed with her aunt some time with her siblings.

When investigating and examining the child’s situation, the rapport and trust with the child is key.

“Some don’t want to talk at all at first, and within the second or third visit that you’ve seen them, they want to sit on your lap and have you read stories,” Marie Mueller said.

A parental ‘death sentence’

If the parents are deemed unable to resume custody of their children, a termination of parental rights is processed. Rogers said the practice happens more than she would like.

“We have a lot of families that really work and really try, but the unfortunate thing is when we come across a family that, due to the nature of the family dynamics, the parents’ history or the parents’ current circumstances, they are unwilling or unable to do what they need to do to get their children home,” she said.

A term used by both CASA volunteer supervisor Cory Buckley and Rogers was a “death sentence” for the parents’ rights to their children.

“Still today, going through a termination is like a death sentence,” Buckley said. “You just can’t figure out why a parent does not see what’s going to happen down the road. I think that they don’t realize that we can truly do that. But at the end of the day, when you find a foster home for these kids that want to adopt these children, you know you’ve made the right decision.”

The physical effects of some abuse cases, Buckley said, have damaged the children to an unbearable point.

“It’s been a year now, but we had a little boy who was ... shaken by his dad,”  she said. “He was unable to hear, see, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t defecate on his own. Basically, he never moved out of one position. He was in pain 24/7.”

The child, Edwin Ledesma, died in March 2013, six years after he was shaken by Victor Alfonso Martinez. Martinez pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and is serving a total 30-year sentence.

Sexual abuse, in particular, bothers Buckley, though she said she can’t tolerate any kind of abuse. Working with CASA has shown her the true reward comes from seeing it through the resolution, she said.

“Seeing the one case with the 2-year-old being prostituted by her mom, it took a toll on the volunteers that handled that case,” Buckley said. “But fortunately, they’re going to be adopted by a wonderful, wonderful family. The outcomes are good. It’s going through the steps that can take a toll on you.”

The Muellers have been invited to birthdays, high school graduations and adoption ceremonies, keeping up with the children years after they settle into a permanent home.

“We’ve had two cases of two sisters each, little ones, being adopted, which their placements were just incredible and a heartwarming resolution to those situations,” said Marie Mueller. “Although reunification is always the main goal ... in these instances, these children are in wonderful, loving situations at the moment.”