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Lawmakers want to give foster parents better standing when it comes to custody
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The Hall County Division of Family and Children Services. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Georgia Senate passed a bill March 7 that would limit the amount of time the state is required to spend seeking a relative or family friend with whom to place a foster child.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he believes the bill will create more stability for foster children.

If, within six months of a child’s removal from his or her home and placement into foster care, the state Division of Family and Children Services cannot locate a relative or family friend willing and capable of caring for the child after a “diligent” effort is made, precedence is then given to keeping that child with his or her foster parents.

And if a relative comes forward after that timeframe, the courts are given the discretion to choose foster parents as a “preferred placement,” ostensibly to protect the child from further trauma or upheaval.

Moreover, the legislation states, “Except where confirmed safety and welfare concerns exist, if a child has been in such a stable foster placement for 12 months or more, a presumption shall exist that remaining in such placement is in the child's best interests."

And, “In all cases in which the child has reached the age of 11, the judge shall consider the desires of the child,” the legislation states.

Reunification with family remains a first and main goal for DFCS and the juvenile court system. So, the bill, which must still be taken up by the Georgia House, “doesn’t close the case” on the potential for a foster child to be reunited with direct family or relatives, Miller said.

Rather, after a certain amount of time, the law shifts the onus of responsibility for seeking custody of a foster child onto the family or relatives instead of DFCS.

Judy Sartain, a Gainesville lawyer who has finalized almost 700 adoptions in 24 years of practice, said in an email that this has been a complicated and frustrating aspect of the law.

“At the present time, relatives can suddenly appear at any time and be considered for placement of the child or children, even if the children have been in a particular foster home for a year or more,” she said. “This can be devastating for the child in foster care … and also a significant loss experienced by their loss of connections with the biological children in the foster family, extended family, school friends, religious organizations and the support network they have formed through their time with their foster family.”

The Senate bill comes a year after Georgia lawmakers overhauled its adoption laws, making sweeping changes to update statutes that had not been modified in three decades.

The changes included reducing adoption wait times and nixing a six-month residency requirement for adoptive parents.

“There’s always going to be little tweaks,” Miller said. “But (this new bill) doesn’t undo anything that was done (last year).”

Ari Ellerbe Mathé, a child welfare law specialist in Gainesville, said she sees the Senate bill “from a lot of different angles.”

Mathé handles dependency and delinquency cases and frequently represents children or adoption-petitioning families in such cases.

“As a child attorney, I do see my clients (children) who become invested and bonded with foster parents over extended period of time,” Mathé said.

Many of the kids come into the care system at a very young age, and foster parents “may be the only parents they know,” Mathé said. “So, anecdotally, if you have a relative that pops up 12, 18 months down the line, that can be excessively traumatic for the child … even if those relatives are very appropriate.”

But Mathé also said placing a child in a safe and suitable home with family or family friends is an effort worth making.

This is particularly true of parents who have lost their child but have improved their lives, she said.

“I also see it from the angle of parents who sometimes come late to the ‘game,’” Mathé said.

Perhaps these parents were unavailable because they had been incarcerated, separated from the main caregiver of the child or incapacitated due to medical reasons.

But Mathé is confident that Hall County’s DFCS office and the local juvenile courts, where judges retain a lot of discretion about where a child should be placed, make a concerted effort to locate direct family or relatives.

“I can envision in some other counties that the efforts to locate and engage parents are less significant than they are in Hall County,” she added.

Children in foster care in Hall County

2013: 173 

2014: 176 

2015: 202 

2016: 251 

2017: 274 

2018: 321

2019: Almost 390

There are just shy of 390 kids in foster care in Hall, according to the latest tally from DFCS officials. There are only about 60 foster homes available, however, and just 25 percent of foster children in Hall are placed with relatives.

“Our foster care population has grown exponentially over the past few years, and the courts and DFCS are hard-pressed to keep up with the needs of the children,” Sartain said.  “People often observe that children are resilient; however, there are situations when putting that resiliency to the test is the morally wrong thing to do. This proposed legislation would make such a removal not only morally wrong, but legally wrong.”

The number of children in foster care in Hall County has risen dramatically over the last several years.

In 2013, there were 173 kids in foster care, 176 in 2014, and 202 in 2015.

That number skyrocketed in recent years, with some blaming the opioid crisis as one cause, and the foster population grew to 251 in 2016, 274 by the end of 2017 and above 300 in 2018.

“We continue to need families for children entering foster care right here in Hall County,” said Rebecca Davidson, who works on recruitment as part of her regional role with DFCS. “Our most critical need is for homes willing to be brave enough to take on teenagers and sibling groups.”

Another critical need, Davidson said, is for bilingual Spanish-English-speaking parents.

“When Hispanic children enter care, the best fit is for them to be able to go into a home that can keep them connected to their culture and language,” she added.

Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Joe Diaz has worked with Davidson and others to recruit Spanish-speaking households into the Hall County foster care network.

Diaz told The Times in January that he had spoken to parishioners at St. John Paul II Roman Catholic Mission in Gainesville. The church has a Latino congregation numbering in the thousands.

And Diaz said a training session is now offered in Spanish to begin qualifying willing families to provide foster homes. The process includes background checks and “home checks” to verify living conditions are safe and appropriate for children, among many other requirements.

“Foster care is meant to be a temporary measure, while the family receives services to address the issues that caused the child to be unsafe in the first place,” Davidson said. “We need families with big hearts and a willingness to model what a healthy, functional family can be for the birth family. Every child loves their family, no matter what the circumstances of their home was or is, and for every child that can safely go home into a birth family that has healed and is stronger — that is a win for all of us.”

How you can help Hall County’s foster children

The Hall County office of the state Division of Family and Children Services, located at 970 McEver Road in Gainesville, is continuously seeking new foster and adoptive parents.

Informational meetings on how this process works are held at the local office at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.

Email Rebecca Davidson with inquiries or questions at