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Editorial: It takes a village to improve foster care system
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Outside the Hall County Division of Family and Children Services in Gainesville, on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

Children do not want a better family, they want their family to be better, a wise juvenile judge once said.

Putting families back together is one of the primary goals of the foster care system.

Putting families back together is hard when mom and dad are in Hall County and their children are living with a foster family hours away in South Georgia.

With 274 children in foster care in Hall County and just 63 foster homes to take care of them, the majority are placed with families outside of Hall.

Complicating those numbers are the fact that private child placing agencies, for various reasons, often fill some of those 63 homes in Hall County with children from other counties.

In Hall County from April 2016 to March 2017, 46 percent of foster children leaving DFCS custody were reunited with their families. That compares to a state average of 55 percent. Reunification is not always in the best interest of the children, but when possible, healing the entire family is a grand purpose.

Local nonprofit Supporting Adoption and Foster Families Together and the juvenile court gathered numerous stakeholders at an hourslong summit Nov. 30.

Solving the foster care crisis is not simple, as we at The Times quickly discovered following our 2014 Broken Bonds series. While the number of foster homes has greatly increased since then, the number of children in the foster care system also increased.

Much has been done to work on the problem, though.

The Division of Family and Children Services has since drastically improved its efforts to recruit foster parents.

SAFFT has opened an office in Gainesville, where it provides services to parents visiting their children as well as services to foster parents and others.

Groups including private child placing agencies, nonprofit Promise686 and churches have worked to surround foster parents with support including meals, babysitting and other services.

We especially applaud juvenile court and SAFFT for getting all these stakeholders in one room together. Available resources aren’t much good if those who need the resources are unaware of them.

When each agency, nonprofit, government entity and ministry works alone, at best they each bite off little pieces of a huge problem and at worst they actually hinder others from adequately serving children.

Working together, these stakeholders can send the “tidal wave” of change through the system that Hall County Juvenile Judge Lindsey Burton spoke of at the summit.

Working together first requires knowing who all is working on the problem and how.

That can be difficult when the primary players change frequently. But they often change frequently because the jobs are exhausting.

That’s one of the reasons why the next important step is to understand what challenges they face.

If a DFCS caseworker isn’t aware of ministries in the area that could help their foster families, those foster families may give up their very challenging job.

If three nonprofits collect Christmas gifts for the same foster family, that family may feel overwhelmed with toys while grandparents with limited means who are caring for a child through the foster system are left with little to give their child.

If every foster family feels adequately supported but no one helps their children’s birth families, the children will spend months and years in the expensive foster care system.

If child placing agencies aren’t aware how Hall DFCS is affected when children from other counties fill foster homes in Hall, DFCS caseworkers and others will struggle to adequately serve the children.

If Hall DFCS is unaware of how its caseworkers’ efficiency can affect foster families, those families may be hesitant to work with them.

And if DFCS caseworkers aren’t supported, turnover at the office can lead to delays in vital paperwork and poor preparation for court, where life-changing decisions are made.

There are many (often slow-)moving parts in the foster care system. Taking a step back to see the whole machine is the only way to truly make it work more efficiently.

The summit was a great first step. We encourage each of those in attendance, as well as other stakeholders, to learn more about parts of the machine they didn’t know much about or perhaps didn’t even know existed. And support each other.

There can be huge conflicts in how to handle particular cases, but few in the foster care system are ambivalent about protecting children and families. That should be remembered.

To those outside the system, there are ways to help.

DFCS and child-placing agencies each recruit foster parents and provide training opportunities in Hall County. They also recruit respite parents, who must go through the same training but keep children for short periods of time when foster parents need a little time off. DFCS hosts information meetings at 5:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month at the Hall DFCS office at 937 McEver Road. Private agencies operating in Hall include Bethany Christian Services, Faithbridge Foster Care, United Methodist Children’s Home and Uniting Hope for Children, among others. Each offers information meetings, sometimes outside of Hall County, that act as the first step for those interested in foster parenting.

Each foster family needs a group of people willing to support them in a variety of ways. Those interested can reach out to their church, foster families they know or groups like Promise686 and SAFFT.

Children in the foster care system get attorneys to tell the court what they want, but children also get court-appointed special advocates to inform the court about what’s best for them. CASAs can often gather information other parties may not have as well as develop relationships with the children and their families. Training opportunities are typically held twice a year for those wanting to be CASAs.

Those who want to become more familiar with the issues can reach out to Burton at 770-531-6927 and DFCS’s Rebecca Davidson, both of whom visit groups to speak about foster care.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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