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Child welfare advocates welcome state shake-up
Deals moves aimed to boost accountability, but experts say funding remains a challenge
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Interview with Keith Clark

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A leadership shake-up and shift in focus at the Department of Family and Children Services is a “major change,” local child welfare leaders said this week.

Gov. Nathan Deal announced Thursday that Bobby Cagle will become the interim director of DFCS, leaving his position as commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning. Cagle will replace Director Sharon Hill, who is leaving to serve at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. Amy Jacobs, senior policy adviser for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, will replace Cagle as interim commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning.

The governor has also tapped Katie Jo Ballard to serve as the deputy interim director of DFCS, leaving her role as executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. The governor also said DFCS will be separated from the Department of Human Services, and the head of DFCS now will report directly to the governor instead of the DHS commissioner.

One advocate welcomed what looks to be a major shift in thinking — focus on child welfare instead of family reunification — paired with the shift in leadership

“The changes made will benefit children who need protection,” said Connie Stephens in an email to The Times. Stephens is president of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, which advocates for children in court.

Hall County juvenile judge Cliff Jolliff said there is now a balance in the system between the best interest of the child and compliance with statutory rights of parents. Leaning away from reunification would represent a shift in priorities.

“Too many children have suffered and/or died under the current policy,” Stephens said. “As child advocates for children needing protection, the CASA program applauds the governor for making these changes.”

It’s yet to be seen how the changes will affect the system, and whatever the case, child advocates said there has to be adequate funding.

“I think the biggest issue is the support for frontline workers for DFCS,” said attorney Amanda Dean, who represents juveniles in court proceedings. “They have very little support.”

Dean, who has also represented DFCS in court in the past, said it’s next to impossible for DFCS workers to do a good job with their caseloads and staff turnover.

Jolliff agreed that strain is virtually unprecedented.

“Hall County DFCS is as pressured as they’ve ever been from a staff standpoint,” he said.

A de-emphasis on reunification with parents could also mean more kids placed in foster homes outside the county, or in group homes.

“We don’t have enough foster homes. It’s very challenging right now,” Jolliff said.

There have already been other leadership changes at DFCS on a local level. Hall DFCS Director Jill Rice retired last week, Jolliff said.

Dean said as DFCS takes flak from the high-profile deaths of children who were in their care and manage morale with leadership changes, their intentions and efforts are often undervalued.

“They’re trying to do what they can, and they really do try to do what’s best for the children,” she said.

Dean said it’s difficult to intervene in a preventative way for children if cases are constantly being triaged.

“Unless it’s an emergency-type situation, a lot of kids get put on the back burner,” she said.

Which is where it all comes back to funding again, she said.

Privatization of foster care also has been offered as a solution. The state is running pilot programs in some counties to test the concept after a bill failed in the legislature to privatize the whole system, something some child advocates said was too rushed.

“I think for the government at least, and child protective services are a government agency, the accountability portion is hard,” Dean said. “If they privatize foster care, you need to hold somebody accountable. You can get rid of that agency and find a new agency.”

But there could be drawbacks as well, she lamented.

“Like other government contracts, you start to get into the lowest bid situations,” she said.

A system more integrated with the private sector could be one of the solutions touted by Deal’s Child Welfare Reform Council. The council, created in March by Deal, will present recommendations to the governor in the fall.

All of the recent appointments take effect Monday. Deal said individuals will serve on an interim basis until permanent replacements are named.

Meanwhile locally, Jolliff said child welfare players will wade through the changes together as they continue to seek out solutions at their periodic meetings.