Child welfare advocates called the current foster parent shortage a “crisis” as unprecedented numbers of kids are being taken into emergency care.
“We need more foster homes — it’s really a crisis right now,” said Connie Stephens, executive director of Hall and Dawson counties’ Court Appointed Special Advocate program.
CASA volunteers are appointed — by law — through the juvenile court system to represent the best interests of children from homes being investigated for abuse or neglect.
“It’s a staggering increase,” Stephens said. “It’s just overwhelming right now, the number of children we’re seeing.”
Susan Boatwright, communications director for the Department of Family and Children Services, framed the statistics.
“For the year 2012, the total year, there were 35 children. In December, we’ve almost — and the month is not over — had as many children coming into care as we brought in all of 2012,” she said.
Cliff Jolliff is one of two juvenile judges for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which serves Hall and Dawson counties,
“A couple of weeks ago we had 25 or so kids come in to emergency foster care in one week,” he said. “That’s more in my 23 years (than) I’ve ever had.”
Abuse and neglect cases have legally mandated timelines, he said, pushing the court schedules to literal “capacity.”
“We have to have two hearings very quickly. Within three days, we have to have an emergency hearing if a child needs to remain in foster care until full trial. And then if that determination is made, the full trial has to happen in 15 days,” he said, including weekends. “We cannot stop. These time frames are always in play.”
On Monday, fellow Juvenile Judge Lindsay Burton was in court for 11 hours, he said. The previous Monday, Jolliff was in court hearings from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with one 30-minute break.
The entire criminal court system is affected, he said, from deputies providing court security to the clerk’s office.
“Right now, it’s really a struggle with our existing juvenile court staff to keep up with and process properly and pay attention properly to the current work,” he said.
Jolliff said there is not a quick fix for the courts.
“The Superior Court judges have said they’re going to be looking into creating a third juvenile court judgeship, but that’s not something happening tomorrow — that’s a larger project,” he said.
Boatwright said the agency is looking for funding from the state to help caseworkers.
“Statewide, we’re looking to increase our workforce by adding additional positions,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hall and Dawson DFCS Director Jill Rice said workers were setting priorities on resources, redirecting staff to temporarily assist where most needed.
Stephens said CASA has similarly been shifting resources, although more help is needed for the organization that for 25 years has traditionally been able to keep up with incremental increases.
“Prioritizing is a good word, but we are struggling right now to assign all of these cases coming through the system,” she said.
“We need more CASAs desperately; we need old CASAs to step up to the bat,” Stephens added. “These kids need our support and our protection. Our social services is so overwhelmed right now. It’s really difficult for them, and we work hand in hand trying to protect these kids.”
CASA will be training new volunteers to become certified child advocates in February, Stephens said.
She said multiple factors have contributed to the increase, including the November death of a 10-year-old Lawrenceville girl, Emani Moss, who Gwinnett County police have said they believe was starved to death.
“A lot of the reasons for the increase is speculated that it’s increase in poverty rate, unemployment, stress in the families, substance abuse, and also I think a recent child fatality in the state of Georgia has spurred more referrals into the system,” Stephens said.
Jolliff said in his experience, the Moss incident and cases like it were a likely contributor.
“When a high-profile media report of a child death — that is somewhat attributed to a lack of responsiveness by the agency — the agency gets very conservative and starts bringing more cases to court,” Jolliff said. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — I’m just saying that happens.”
It’s been a trend for the past few years that the juvenile court has seen more abuse and neglect cases, he said.
“Our case filing the last few years for delinquencies — unruly kids, kids that are truant — that’s on the steady decline. The abuse- and the neglect-related cases, and the cases where the state is trying to terminate parental rights, are on the increase over the past few years,” he said.
Placing more children in homes would ease the burden on courts and agencies, he said.
“We create legal orphans sometimes, and we are required to monitor their circumstances as best we can — but there’s the challenge,” Jolliff said. “That’s the jigsaw puzzle. There’s a lot of kids in that category, who aren’t going back to their birth parents, that may not be in a permanent home, and that’s our challenge.”
He and Stephens both cited the disproportionate number of kids to foster homes.
“We need more foster homes. These poor children are being placed all over the state of Georgia, some in institutions, and that should never happen,” Stephens said. “We should have more foster homes here in Hall County.”
Interested citizens can notify CASA, and will undergo an evaluation, she said.
“If private citizens are interested in opening up their homes, there is a way we can qualify them,” Stephens said. “The courts could place these children in homes that would go through a criminal background check, a fingerprinting check, a drug screening as well as a home evaluation.”
For more information, visit www.halldawsonCASA.org or contact the office at 770-531-1964, Stephens said.