Hall County’s social service officials pull fewer at-risk children away from their families and keep them in foster care for less time than most large counties in Georgia, according to statistics presented at a Thursday seminar.
Meanwhile, advocates for abused and neglected children continue to struggle to find foster homes for teens, many of whom end up in group homes or institutions.
Officials with the Hall County office of Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services joined judges, attorneys, school social workers, clergy members, child advocates and law enforcement officials for Thursday’s Hall County Justice for Children Summit, sponsored by a Georgia Supreme Court committee that focuses on child welfare.
They heard statistics that portrayed Hall County as ahead of the curve when it came to keeping endangered children with relatives and out of foster homes.County social services use the juvenile court system to remove about four children from homes each month, less than one child per 10,000 people. Statewide, the rate is 2.5 children per 10,000 who are placed in foster care.
"You remove far fewer than the rest of the state," Beth Locker, the deputy project director for the Georgia Supreme Court Committee on Justice for Children, told local officials. "You’re not taking that many and not keeping kids all that long, but also, they are not being hurt when they go back home."
Hall County’s re-victimization rates for children who have been removed from bad homes is better than half of Georgia’s 159 counties, Locker said.
"You are better than the vast majority of states in this country in keeping children from being re-abused," she said.
Last year Hall County’s DFCS office received 1,353 reports of maltreatment, though not all were substantiated. In the first six months of the year, only 32 of Hall County’s 744 victims of maltreatment were re-victimized within six months.
"You’re clearly making good decisions about putting children back in homes or keeping them in homes," Locker said. "Not a single one of your children who was removed (from a home) last year was re-abused."
State child welfare officials have in recent years stressed the importance of keeping endangered children with family members if at all possible.
"We know removal is traumatic, and we don’t want to do it if we don’t have to," Locker said.
Hall County has a low foster care rate because of the concerted efforts of DFCS officials to find aunts, uncles, grandparents and other relatives who can care for endangered children, said local director Bebe Philbin.
"We really look for relatives," Philbin said. "We only use foster care as a last resort."
Said Locker, "DFCS goes out and finds those families prior to court involvement. Having a low removal rate is good, if the children are safe."
Finding good foster care for teens is a problem that has vexed local officials for some time, however. Almost a third of Hall County children in foster care are kept in group homes or institutions.
"Hall has been higher than the state for many years," Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Carden said. "We have almost no foster homes for teenagers. Other (children) are extremely disturbed and tend to go to institutions. But we really do need more teenage foster homes."
Other challenges identified by local child welfare officials during Thursday’s seminar included funding, population growth, population diversity and transiency.
And officials across the state grapple with the problems of locating absentee fathers, Locker said.
"Georgia does a poor job of finding fathers and using paternal relatives as a resource for placement," Locker said.
Locker said the seminar’s attendees shouldn’t lose sight of their mission while absorbing the reams of statistics, charts and graphs.
"Behind each number is a real child, and each day you are affecting a child’s life," she said.