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Foster care in crisis: Too many kids, too few homes
Caseworkers spread thin as rising need overwhelms system
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Holly Campolong, Division of Family and Children Services director for Hall and Dawson counties, and Kenny Jarvis, DFCS region 2 director, talk about their work.

Read more: Broken bonds, Hall County's foster care gap

How to support foster parents and/or children

  • Sponsor a child’s music lessons or athletic team membership
  • Sponsor a child for their birthday or Christmas
  • Become a volunteer babysitter or transporter, which requires some paperwork and screening
  • Become a respite family, which requires all the same training and paperwork as becoming a foster parent but a much lesser time commitment. Respite families take occasional weekends to watch full-time foster parents’ children in order to give those parents a break.
  • Become a Court-Appointed Special Advocate. CASAs represent children in court and help find them safe and permanent homes. Call their office at 770-531-1964.
  • Get involved with Promise 686, which works with area churches to recruit, train and support DFCS foster families.

Call the local Division of Family and Children Services at 770-532-5233 for more information about other available opportunities.

How to become a foster parent
Basic requirements: Be age 25 or older, complete a medical exam, comply with a fingerprint check and pass a background check. Additional paperwork and training is required.
Contact: 1-877-210-KIDS
Training dates: No training is currently available in Hall County, but orientation classes are provided in some neighboring counties and full training will be available in January in Forsyth County. Call 770-532-5233 for more information.
Private agencies: A number of private agencies contract with DFCS to provide homes in Hall County; they train foster parents separately. Visit their websites for more information about their specific focuses and contact those agencies directly to become a foster parent through their organizations. Most also take monetary donations.
Bethany Christian Services: 770-455-7111
Creative Community Services: Therapeutic foster care agency focused on children with developmental disabilities and mental health needs. Contact them at 770-469-6226 and ask to talk with Reva Bowers in the recruitment and retention department or email info@ccsgeorgia.org. They’re also looking for donations of rocking chairs and socks, help building a ramp at a foster home in Lawrenceville and restaurant gift certificates for families to have a night out.
Georgia Agape: Call 770-452-9995 and ask for Joan Zahler.
FaithBridge Foster Care: Agency focused on providing Christian foster homes. Call 678-690-7100. Two-hour orientation classes are offered regularly.

At any given time, there are around 180 children in the system, but only 25 foster homes. This means many kids are sent to homes outside the county, away from their families, friends and schools — disconnected from their communities.

This distance puts a stress on reunification efforts by making parental visits more difficult, and it adds an extra burden of time spent by Division of Family and Children Services caseworkers who already struggle to spend time with foster children while working twice the ideal number of cases.

The agency has undergone a recent overhaul that took it out from under the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services, and a new division director, Bobby Cagle, has been appointed.

Some of the changes have helped clear a backlog of investigations, but significant problems continue to plague the system.

Root of the problem

Many of Georgia’s challenges are reflected nationwide, including the reasons children are put into state care in the first place: drug abuse, mental health issues, single-parent households and poverty, according to Holly Campolong, DFCS director for Hall and Dawson counties.

“I’ve seen that everywhere that I’ve been in DFCS,” Campolong said.

Children can be removed from their homes because of sexual abuse, physical abuse and crime, but most often because of neglect.

“Sometimes we have parents who aren’t willing to care for their child,” Campolong said. “We have parents who just say, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Often, drug addiction is the cause.

“Substance abuse just brings so many other factors at play when you’re talking about the safety of children,” said Kenny Jarvis, DFCS director for Region 2, which includes Hall County. “It often brings in criminal activity. It’s concurrent with domestic violence at times. A high percent of our cases will involve substance abuse at some level.”

After the safety of the children, the primary goal of DFCS is to safely reunite families who have been split apart. To achieve this, many parents enter family treatment court, an 18-month voluntary program designed to help parents overcome addiction so their children can be returned home.

In Hall, the process is made more difficult by the lack of foster homes. The county has fewer available beds per foster child than any Georgia county except Bartow, Glynn and Floyd.

“Very few are placed in the Hall County area, which makes it very difficult for parents to visit,” said Cory Buckley, a Court-Appointed Special Advocate volunteer supervisor.

When visits with parents are less frequent, successful reunification is less likely.

“It’s not fair for the children — every child loves their parent regardless of what the abuse was,” Buckley said. “They deserve to see their parents, and if they’re down in Brunswick, Valdosta, Savannah, Augusta, Macon, it’s very hard for the department.”

CASA volunteers meet with the children and advise the court on what they believe is best for them.

Case managers also have to make the time to travel long distances, making their workload even heavier.

“Some are driving to Savannah, to Cobb County, to Cherokee County, to Clayton County just to get that one face-to-face visit per month that’s required,” said Lindsay Burton, a judge in Hall County’s juvenile court. “So the strain that it puts on just the case manager, the number of hours they spend in a car, perhaps they would be making return phone calls, looking for additional services for parents, doing more of what they’re already doing.”

More than they can handle

That strain leads to high turnover rates; about a quarter of DFCS staff leave each year, according to Cagle.

“Along with turnover like that you have an ongoing challenge of having sufficient training for staff,” Cagle said. “So it’s kind of a combined effect of turnover and having to train and retrain new staff all the time that is really draining the system currently.”

Some 20 percent of caseworkers have been on the job for less than a year, and 31 percent have been in their current position within the agency for less than a year, according to a survey by the Georgia Child Protective Services Advisory Committee.

And they’re responding to more reports of neglect and abuse due to a new reporting system that allows people to report 24 hours a day. There are also more people legally required to make those reports.

Those factors have driven the number of reports up by nearly 30 percent statewide. With the new system in place, someone calls state officials to report abuse or neglect 8,400 times each month. That’s 270 reports a day for DFCS to investigate.

And as those reports have gone up, funding for DFCS — as in other state agencies — has decreased as a result of the economic downturn and falling revenues.

Overtime was mandated last summer to clear a backlog of investigations, which are supposed to be completed within 45 days. Statewide, 3,300 of them were overdue in July, and investigators were required to put in at least eight hours of overtime per week.

Hall investigators have an average of 35 active cases at a time — more than twice the goal of 15 — and used the overtime to clear a backlog of 187 overdue investigations.

Case managers often work overtime and usually aren’t paid for it, according to Jarvis.

He said case managers are entitled to compensatory time when they work more than 40 hours per week, but they don’t always have time in their schedules to take it.

Campolong said she considers case work “one of the most worthwhile jobs out there,” but the difficulties are significant.

“We ask young people right out of college to do one of the most stressful jobs I can think of,” said Cliff Jolliff, a Hall County juvenile court judge.

Even with the addition of new case managers, staffing is an issue following the implementation of a new juvenile code in January that requires caseworkers to spend more time in court.

Under the law, the number and frequency of hearings in foster care cases is increased, and children are appointed their own attorney.

“It particularly affects the process involving children who have allegations of abuse and neglect,” Jolliff said.

Case managers spend as much as a quarter of their working days in court.

All that leaves them with less time to work directly with families and foster families. Difficulty getting in touch with a case manager is a common complaint throughout the system.

The search for solutions

The state has begun to try to address the problem. Over the summer, the governor’s office announced funding for 278 additional caseworkers statewide, 15 or 20 of whom were assigned to the region that includes Hall County. The agency is requesting another 278 next year.

“Training and development is really the plan around that, along with enhancements that the state can bring in terms of better salaries,” Jarvis said. “If we reduce some of the issues that are causing turnover, like caseload sizes, I think that will help. And we really just need to invest more in our staff, supervisors and case managers, and have as healthy a work environment as we possibly can.”

Campolong, who began her Hall County post in September, said she plans to address the lack of foster homes in the county. She is reaching out to the religious community to make the need for homes known, noting many of the private child-placing agencies that recruit and train foster parents are religious organizations.

She said the county is also looking for a resource development case manager to train new foster parents in-house.

At the state level, there is talk of changing the system entirely. Earlier this year, the legislature considered privatizing the system before the brakes were applied on that process. Instead there was a call for pilot programs on privatization in two DFCS regions.

The bid process for that project was just placed on hold. DFCS plans to rebid the project after doing more work with stakeholders.

Georgia Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, was named to the Child Welfare Reform Council in April, a group tasked with reviewing the child welfare system in Georgia. Composed of state legislators, child welfare advocates and education officials, Willard said the hope is to have recommendations made by December.

“We have a desire to ... not have more than 15 caseloads per worker, and also to have one supervisor for approximately every five caseworkers,” Willard said in September of one of the potential reform areas. “So you’ve got a better working arrangement between the supervisor, the caseworkers and the families they’re assisting.”

But in the meantime, foster children in Hall County are still without local places to live or case workers with adequate time for them. As DFCS scrambles to bridge the gap, children continue to be removed from their homes and often sent many miles away.

“We have overstressed the agency,” Jolliff said. “They’ve suffered budget cutbacks in the last couple of years, reductions ... There’s going to have to be a real effort to lower the caseload to a manageable number.”

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