Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature on the budget Monday will usher in a sizable investment for the state’s foster care system, including increased salaries for caseworkers and per diems for foster parents.
“Our foster parents have taken a huge responsibility and have brought children into their home,” said Ashley Fielding, Department of Human Services’ legislative and governmental affairs communications director. “They deserve support as they navigate this new family dynamic.”
There are 55 active foster homes in Hall County, which includes 24 working directly with DFCS and 31 who work with private child placement agencies, according to DHS.
Per diems given to the foster families vary by the age of the children. For example, for each child younger than 5, the family receives about $15 per day.
Fielding said DFCS foster parents are expecting to see a roughly $10 daily increase starting July 1. Relative foster care placements and foster families working with child placing agencies will get a $5 daily increase as part of a two-year plan.
“That was put in with the intent that they would be brought up to the $10 amount by the next fiscal year,” Fielding said.
The budget includes $25.9 million for raising Division of Family and Children Services caseworker salaries and another $10.7 million in per diem rate increases for DFCS foster families.
Martha Coley, a Gainesville foster parent for 33 years who has cared for more than 100 children, said the per diem increase is greatly needed.
Before working with an agency, the amount received was “not nearly enough to take care of a child,” Coley said.
Taking care of caseworkers so they can take care of children also has been a struggle.
In an attempt to tackle the department’s rampant turnover, salaries for caseworkers will increase by an average of 19 percent in the new budget. Fielding said the money will bump up the starting salary, which is currently around $28,000.
“The impacts of these salary increases will be huge in our ability to retain workers,” Fielding said.
Fielding said it takes about two years for a caseworker to get up to speed. The department has a 32 percent turnover rate.
“A lot of our work depends upon the relationship we’re able to have with families, so for that reason retention is huge,” she said.
When Deal assembled the Child Welfare Reform Council a couple of years ago, a major goal suggested by the group was having a caseworker handle 15 cases.
According to DHS data from 2016, the average caseworker in Hall County’s region had 24 cases. If all positions were filled, the caseload would be 16.
REWRITING THE ADOPTION CODE
While the budget represents change for the average foster family and caseworkers, other stakeholders around the state saw their legislation stall or fall apart in the legislature this year.
Most notable was the attempt to revamp the state’s adoption code, which was last rewritten in 1990.
“It really brings Georgia’s adoption law on par with many other states. Our code has not been overhauled in a long time,” Gainesville adoption attorney Judy Sartain said. “There’s been amendments here and there, but the adoption code has not been totally reworked in many years.”
One of the biggest areas to address for Sartain was equal rights between private individuals and private adoption agencies.
Currently, a private agency can pay for transportation, living expenses and other items for the mother, while a private individual cannot offer anything of value.
“It was really going to put the individual private adoption person on a more level playing field,” Sartain said.
The code rewrite would also allow the biological parents to waive the 10-day period of revoking the adoption that is allowed.
“They don’t have to give a reason, they don’t have to prove a point,” Sartain said. “They just simply say, ‘I changed my mind’ and can take the baby back. And of course that causes just 10 days of agony for all parties.”
The 10 days of waiting is heart-wrenching for the adopting parents, but it can also take a toll on the mother undergoing biological changes postpartum, Sartain said.
“I always caution women to trust the decision when they were clear of mind,” she said.
House Bill 159 sailed through with a 165-0 vote before heading to the Senate. An amendment regarding religious liberty halted the bill’s momentum.
“I felt very conflicted, because I wanted the bill to pass, but I understood what the senator was trying to do to introduce the amendment,” Sartain said. “He was trying to preserve the right of the various religious agencies in the state of Georgia to place a child with either a single parent or a heterosexual married couple.”
Sartain said the issue likely will come up next session.
“Now that we know that that’s a hurdle we have to clear, that’s going to be first and foremost, front and center in the efforts at reintroducing the bill,” she said.
A POOL OF VOLUNTEERS
Another bill that didn’t clear all of its legislative hurdles was an effort to make a uniform system for volunteers helping foster parents.
After noticing a high rate of foster parents quitting, Promise 686 President and CEO Andy Cook said the goal was to create a support network for foster families. Promise 686 works with churches to recruit, train and support foster families.
“Our rationale was if we had a stronger volunteer system, we could ultimately have stronger foster families and more foster families,” Cook said.
Senate Bill 170 would have created a uniform system of approving volunteers, who are often needed for babysitting, mentoring and other services.
Cook said the greatest need for foster parents are babysitters used on a routine basis.
“Once it becomes routine care, then there’s a ton of vetting that has to occur for that babysitter, things like background checks and fingerprinting,” he said. “The standards and process for how that occurs is different in every county, and private agencies also handle it differently between agencies.”
The goal would be to create a pool of volunteers able to serve across county and agency lines, he said.
The bill passed in the Senate 40-13, but it was withdrawn in the House on March 30.
Before the next session starts, Cook said he will spend the year discussing with DFCS how the volunteer program might be structured while also working to address the needs of private agencies.