Georgia's foster care system, one rife with complexity and circumstance, can be difficult to navigate for foster parents and biological relatives.
For the state’s many foster care workers and advocates, the complexity of foster care is one that requires a lot of untangling.
“Think of the foster care system as a complex web,” said Janet Walden, executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court Appointed Special Advocate program. “In this web, you need constant resources and support to ensure that everyone in the foster care system has access to a support system.”
According to county statistics, 338 of the state's estimated 11,200 foster children are from Hall County.
Determining “what’s best” for Georgia’s foster care population can be difficult for local workers given the circumstantial nature of each case.
But Walden said that achieving permanency for foster children is an “urgent and critical” objective.
“Bringing urgency to permanency, whether through reunification with family, guardianship or adoption is critical,” said Walden, whose agency provides volunteers to advocate for children’s best interest in court. “Foster parents and relatives who step up to provide a safe loving home for children who have experienced abuse and neglect deserve our support.”
Denise Peacock — in her role as manager of foster care recruitment and retention at Wellroot Family Services, formerly the United Methodist Children’s Home — is often in meetings that attempt to answer the question of what’s best for the foster children in District 2, which includes Hall County.
Peacock explained that those meetings encompass everything from identifying adequate housing to ensuring the social, environmental and physical needs for all involved.
She said an ideal foster care system is one that prevents families from falling apart in the first place.
“It’s a task easier said than done, but if you polled any county, they will say that there is a lot that still needs to be done," Peacock said.
Georgia lawmakers believe a series of bipartisan bills, touted as an overhaul of the state's foster care system, can provide more insight into the question of "what's best" for Georgia's foster care population.
Three bills, House Bill 114, 154, and Senate Bill 28, propose tripling the state’s adoption tax credit, lowering the minimum age to adopt to 21, and allowing Georgia courts to consider second-hand information from witness testimonies during child protective hearings, respectively.
“Right now there is a lot of momentum behind the issue, it is embraced in a bipartisan manner, and the Governor’s Office, the House and the Senate are all prioritizing it,” Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, told the Times. “With the reforms to adoption and foster care in the last few years, we have seen a dramatic decrease in our foster care population.”
Reeves is one of the sponsors for HB 114, a proposal that aims to triple the state’s adoption tax credit from $2,000 to $6,000.
Reeves said the goal of HB114 is to off-set the cost of fostering. In Georgia, foster parents receive between $523-$630 in retroactive payments per month to cover expenses for a child. The system works to reunify children with their families when possible.
“Expanding and increasing the tax credit from $2,000 will by no means solve the problem altogether, but it is a sensible and responsible way to try and create some equity in the cost of fostering,” he said.
Under this proposal, that tax credit for parents adopting would increase to $6,000 for the first five years after a child’s adoption.
After those five years, adoptive parents will continue to receive a $2,000 tax credit until the child turns 18 years old.
Foster parents cannot receive an adoption tax credit that is higher than the amount they owe, according to federal law.
According to the IRS, taxpayers claiming the adoption tax credit can choose to exclude adoption expenses paid for or reimbursed by an employer and the credit is non-refundable.
However, they do reserve the option to carry the credit over to another year, even after the child turns 18.
Peacock believes there are other ways to reallocate funding to address shortfalls in the foster care system.
“Rather than increase the adoption tax credit for families, would it have not been possible to consider using those funds to provide extra services for children currently in the system?” Peacock asked.
Because of yearly cuts in funding and the economic impact of COVID-19, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services had to close 53 offices in the state in 2020.
The division ultimately had to cut services, give furlough days to employees and eliminate or suspend the child abuse registry to meet the 14% budget cut requested at the request of Gov. Kemp.
When Gov. Kemp first unveiled his proposal to increase foster care tax credits in 2020, Georgia State University financial researchers projected that the measure could result in a loss of $12.8 over the next few years.
Projections from Georgia State University’s Fiscal Center estimated that state tax revenues would be decreased by $1.4 million in 2020, with a growth of $3.6 million by 2025.
The undercutting of DFCS resources, Peacock said, has left foster children throughout Georgia’s 159 counties underserved.
It has also led to higher caseloads for the DFCS offices that have remained open.
“When agencies have higher caseloads, that’s more attention that needs to be spread out, so it’s harder to identify what’s best for each child and each circumstance,” Peacock said.
Reeves said addressing the budgetary damage done to state services like DFCS is an ongoing legislative issue.
“Our hope is that we can increase these budgets and increase our resources for foster care,” Reeves said.
In regards to current legislation, Kevin Harris, director of legislative affairs for Georgia DFCS said that increasing the state’s adoption tax credit is “one more tool in the toolbox” to help incentivize fostering and finding homes for the state’s foster children.
“There are many ways in which we can help foster parents through policy,” Harris said. “We have fewer children waiting for adoption than we’ve had in some time.”
He added, “Smart, prudent tax policies such as (House Bill 114) should continue that trend.”
Tax credit increases, according to Walden, aren’t a factor in why people choose to become foster parents.
“About the tax credit, it is not my role to speak for foster families, but it is my experience in our community that the tax credit is not the motivating factor for why someone would choose to foster or adopt,” Walden said.
John Williams, executive director of It Is Well Foster Care Inc. located in Buford, said the increased tax credit should help foster parents across the state.
It Is Well Foster Care Inc. is a child-placing agency that works to find the best fit between a foster child and prospective parents.
Williams said the pre-screen background checks into a prospective family is an “intensive” process.
“One of the questions that our agency asks prospective foster parents is how will they be able to financially support this child,” he said. “Each circumstance is different, but I imagine parents would start to see some relief with an increase in tax credit.”
But for some, tripling tax incentives won’t solve all the complex problems that impede prospective foster parents from adopting and prevent foster children available for adoption from finding permanent families.
One of the complexities that foster care and child-placing services grapple with is the financial circumstances that prevent a foster child from achieving permanency.
“Child Placing Agencies like ours do not have direct say-so over financials or how they should be handled, because that is done at a state level,” Williams said. “We work in partnership with DFCS on placing children.”
Williams said legislation that aims to waive financial hurdles such as adoption fees and court fees could remove a significant barrier in the foster care system. Those fees are covered in some cases, such as the adoption of sibling groups and children with medical needs.
While there are no bills currently in session that address the waiving of adoption or court fees, Harris said recent foster care reform legislation has been instrumental in the downward trend in the number of children in the state’s foster care system.
Currently, the state has roughly 11,200 children in foster care, which Harris said is down from roughly 15,000 in 2018.
In 2019, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law, allowing children without access to their immediate family to be placed with another family relative instead of being placed in the foster system.
Reeves believes the series of bills will continue the state’s push to increase adoptions in the state.
“By continuing to improve the efficiency and accessibility of adoptions, and continuing to build on the success of 2019’s HB 472,” Reeves said, “we believe we will continue to see a continued reduction in foster care.”
Some local foster care advocates stress the importance of prioritizing reunification when possible.
Arianna Mathe, a Gainesville-based child welfare law specialist, said that despite the “good intentions” of lawmakers and lobbyists backing the series of bills in the effort to incentivize more adoptions in the state, reunification efforts could be deprioritized in the legislation.
“The bills that have been introduced over the last two to three years, including these recent ones, have a tone of focusing on adoption,” she said. “They focus on ways to promote adoption and benefits to foster families, which is fine, since foster families don’t receive nearly enough credit or systemic support in the state.”
The unintended consequence, she said, could impact the state's ability to find funding sources to increase reunification.
“If our focus is how do we make adoption more feasible and we don’t also boost the message of reunification and preservation with the family of origin, maybe we’re missing some opportunities there,” she said.
Peacock said funding and programs aimed at assisting biological parents who have lost custody — due to factors such as substance abuse or an impoverished environment — also need to be at the forefront of foster care legislation.
“I think we should always celebrate an adoption and should always celebrate a child who has found a suitable, lasting home,” Peacock said. “But we also need to ensure that we can reunify families, and part of that is providing biological families with preventative care and support throughout the state.”
Ultimately, without more resources, lawmakers, foster care workers and advocates may be unable to do what’s best for Georgia’s foster children.
“We have a wonderful community of foster families who give from their hearts for children,” Walden said. “That said, many of the children we serve have experienced significant trauma, and more resources to address the needs of the children is always a good thing.”