Broken families. Neglectful parents racked by poverty, addiction or poor personal decisions. Abused children denied a normal upbringing. Government agencies short on resources and personnel scrambling desperately to keep a bad situation from getting worse.
For the past week, the Broken Bonds series in The Times and on gainesvilletimes.com has focused on the county’s foster care system and its many challenges. We’ve read about parents incapable of taking care of kids due to addictions, poverty or simple incompetence in raising a family; children bounced from one foster home to another, many hundreds of miles from home; Department of Family and Children’s Services workers so overburdened they can’t provide the care and support needed; and judges looking for answers where sometimes there are none.
Indeed, solutions aren’t easy to come by, but here are some suggestions that could make this system work better, perhaps a start in the right direction.
• Boost DFCS staffing and funding. The workload on caseworkers is overwhelming considering what is at stake. It’s hard to measure whether there are more kids in crisis or more cases being reported, since examples of abuse kept quiet years ago are no longer hidden in the shadows. That is both a blessing and a curse for agencies burdened by a backlog of cases. Caseworker turnover in such a high-stress job is understandably high, leaving those still on the job stretched thin and new hires struggling to train quickly enough to keep up.
The shortage of foster homes results in many children placed with families outside of Hall, often across the state. Caseworkers thus log hours on the road that could be spent more productively dealing with children’s problems. They also must linger in court dealing with custody issues.
Caring for these kids should be a greater priority before the state legislature. If we’re committed to fully funding schools, we need to ensure children are equally safe and nurtured at home. It’s time lawmakers got serious about eliminating pork-barrel projects in the budget and invest more in the welfare of children, knowing such a move could save what is now spent on prison cells and family courts.
• Raise the profile. The state should highlight the problem, and not just when one high-profile case makes headlines. Better marketing efforts could help Georgians understand the level of this crisis and the cost in lives lost or wasted. This might encourage more Georgians to contribute and volunteer.
If millions can be spent on ads pushing folks to buy lottery tickets, this crucial issue is worth a little more face time as well.
• Make it easier to become a foster parent. It’s vital to ensure foster kids are getting a better, more stable home than the one they left behind. As we read in the case of a former foster child abused by his host family, children can’t be shuffled from bad to worse out of desperation.
But while such a screening system is necessary, the qualification process could be streamlined and some of the demanding health tests and home environment rules relaxed a bit. Those who volunteer to take on foster kids are making a huge sacrifice by taking on kids who often bring health and emotional problems. Removing some of the red tape and fast-tracking those who clearly qualify might encourage more to take part.
Prospective parents also must undergo training sessions that can be lengthy and inconvenient, especially when there are no orientation classes offered in a particular area (as is the case in Hall). Rather than incur more expense by adding classes, instead modernize the process by allowing an online option that allows parents to complete training at home and at different hours.
• Recognize those who do their part. The state can further encourage foster parenting by providing special consideration for those who make the effort. If it can offer tax incentives to lure businesses, why not up the ante with more such perks to those who open their homes to needy children?
Retailers could be encouraged to provide special discounts for foster households, as they often do for military personnel and other community heroes. We should make wearing the badge of foster parent mean as much as the service they perform, and acknowledge how they benefit not just kids but the whole community.
• Get the private sector more involved. From voluntarism to privatization, there are options that don’t have to come from government. Local nonprofits already help DFCS train parents and provide homes. Donations from the community can help them do more with less.
The idea of privatizing more of the foster care system has been proposed but so far has been a nonstarter. Pilot programs planned in two regions have stalled, and a group of legislators and others continue to study if they would work on a wider scale. Despite that uncertainty, it’s worth exploring if it can help down the road.
The stories we’ve read this past week have been enlightening, some heartbreaking, others more hopeful. We now know what many DFCS caseworkers have known all along: There is no way to rescue every child caught up in this maelstrom, as hard as that is to accept.
But if small but incremental improvements in the foster care system can keep just a few more from falling into the same horrible fate, chipping away at it over time is worth the effort.
If only foster kids could form a professional sports team, state and local officials would find a way to pay for a stadium for them. Let’s channel that same effort to provide the resources needed to give them safe, loving homes where they can enjoy something closer to a normal childhood.