Foster care, adoption wait times in Georgia are longer than neighboring states. A Senate study committee delves into the ‘why.’

The first meeting of the Senate study committee on Foster Care and Adoption took place on August 9, 2023. (Credit: Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick)

Children in foster care in Georgia and those waiting to be adopted stay in the system longer than children in neighboring states and the rest of the country.

At the same time, many of the hard-to-place children in the state’s foster care system — those with mental health challenges or other difficulties — are living in hotel rooms and offices because there’s no place for them to go.

State lawmakers looking at ways to improve conditions for children in the state’s child welfare system heard about the longer wait times and housing conditions at a hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol in Atlanta.

What’s Happening

The four-hour hearing was a crash-course for the committee on the state’s overall child welfare system, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, chair of the Senate Foster Care and Adoption Study Committee, told State Affairs. Wednesday’s meeting was the first of four slated in the coming months.

“This is sort of ‘Intro to Foster Care and Adoption in Georgia,’ ” Kirkpatrick said “We’re just trying to bring the committee all up to the same level of understanding.”

One of Kirkpatrick’s top priorities will be addressing the needs of those children in hotels and office buildings.

“The biggest thing is managing kids who are the complex ones, which has gotten a lot of attention over the last year,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s no way to meet their needs currently with the system we have.” 

Many of the kids may be autistic or have other medical concerns. Some are coming out of jail or hospitals, Kirkpatrick said.

“There’s just no place for them to go. There’s no place to put them. There’s no foster parent able to take them because they have complex behavioral needs. [Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS)] Commissioner [Candice] Broce has been working hard on that and making some progress. But to really keep that from happening, we need to figure out how to address problems way further upstream.”

Currently, there are 10,583 children in the custody of DFCS statewide, Broce told the study committee.“The single issue nearest and dearest to my heart is ending hoteling in my home state, and we are laser focused on that objective,” Broce told the committee.

When she assumed the helm at DFCS two years ago, she said, “We were averaging 50 to 60 kids in hotels or offices on any given night in the state because we couldn’t find a relative, foster family, group home or health care facility able to meet their needs.” 

The agency used new strategies and received more money which helped drive “that number down to an all-time low of less than 20 children and young adults hoteled statewide last summer.” 

Yet, the numbers recently shot back up unexplainably, she said. At the beginning of July, the agency had 95 children in hotels and offices but a new law — Senate Bill 133 — which took effect July 1, has helped cut the number of kids in hotels and offices. 

“Last night, we had seven kids in hotels statewide,” Broce said Wednesday.“ Keep in mind, hoteling, and the risk of hoteling, will remain a moving target. But we are so close to zero that DFCS is electric.”

“We’re ready to pull up our sleeves and get to work with this committee,” Broce added.

In addition to the hoteling issue, the committee learned children in foster care in Georgia spend about two years in the system — nearly three more months than the national average of 21.7 months, Roger Moore, senior policy analyst with the The Council of State Governments (CSG)Southern Office, told the committee. CSG also is known as the Southern Legislative Conference. 

Georgia children waited even longer to be adopted. The average wait time in Georgia was 41 months compared to 21.9 months nationally, Moore noted. 

“Georgia was significantly higher,” Moore told the committee. “It’s certainly something that can be addressed moving forward as you consider solutions.” 

Meanwhile, the head of the state agency that oversees the child welfare system in Georgia compared the system to that of the human body.

“It’s a system of systems all interrelated in ways that sometimes aren’t immediately apparent,” Jerry Bruce, director of the state’s Office of the Child Advocate told the committee. “You pull on a string over here and sometimes it starts moving over here and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, how did that happen?’ Because it’s a very complicated system.”

Bruce’s office was established soon after Terrell Peterson, a 5-year-old Atlanta boy was tortured and beaten to death in 1998 while his case was under active state supervision. The child’s death sparked national outrage at the time.

Bruce travels the state training and working with judges, DFCS workers, lawyers, and others in the juvenile court system. And one issue has become clear.

“One of the reasons that we have such a reactive system is that we have a real lack of objective data about our child welfare system,” Bruce said. “We have no centralized data system for our juvenile courts in Georgia.

“I ought to be able to pull up a report and answer a question in five minutes. I can’t do it,” he said. “ I can’t tell you how many pending termination of parental rights hearings there are right now. I can’t tell you how many kids with terminations completed or [are] awaiting adoption right now. DFCS has some of this information, but they only track it incidentally because they’re tracking kids’ cases,” Bruce said. “So they happen to track what goes on in courts. But until we can answer the question objectively about what’s going on across the state and our courts with a statewide data system for juvenile courts, we’re going to be guessing about a lot of this stuff.”

Bruce urged the committee to urge lawmakers to consider creating a central data system. “If you don’t have data, we make bad decisions, or we make ill-informed decisions, or we have policy by publicity, which is certainly not a good way to handle a child welfare system dealing with the fundamental right of parents to have a relationship with their children.”

Committee members had an arsenal of questions and concerns.

Sen. Randy Robertson, a committee member who spent 30 years as a law enforcement officer,  voiced concern over whether parents who find themselves in the crosshairs of the child welfare system fully understand the process and their rights.

“Are we educating parents or putting that on the shoulders of parent advocates?,” he asked. 

Sen. Kim Jackson, another committee member, was surprised by Georgia’s ability to reunite children with their families.

“If the goal is ultimately reunification, then only 41% of these children are being re-unified, we are failing. That’s an F minus,” Jackson asked. “Why is our reunification so low?”

“The primary goal is reunification,” Dina Krim, an attorney who said she has represented “thousands of cases” for DFCS over the years, responded. “But that is not always possible because the parent maybe doesn’t comply with the goals we’ve asked them to do. Or in some instances because the needs of the child are severe. But when you’re only removing children, in the most dire circumstances, that means you’re going to have the most severe situations and there are some cases like that.”

What’s Next?

The public will have a chance to speak at the committee’s second meeting which also will be at the Capitol on Sept. 26. Sen. Robertson will host the third meeting in Columbus in late-October. It  will focus on adoption. The fourth and final meeting will wrap up with a session in Atlanta sometime in November. 

Study committees must be finished with their hearings by December 1. They will report their findings to the General Assembly when the Legislature convenes in January.

In addition to Kirkpatrick, the committee includes Sen. Chuck Payne;  Sen. Randy Robertson; Dr. John Constantino, chief of Behavioral and Mental Health at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta; Sen. Bo Hatchett; Sen. Kim Jackson; Bob Bruder-Mattson, president and CEO of FaithBridge Foster Care; and adoption attorney Juli Wilkes Wisotsky of Wisotsky Law Inc. in Jefferson.

Average Length of Time Children stay in Foster Care
  • Tennessee — 18 months
  • Alabama — 18.3 months
  • South Carolina — 21.2 months
  • U.S. — 21.7 months
  • Georgia — 24 months
Average time Children Wait to be adopted
  • U.S. — 21.9 months
  • Alabama — 31  months
  • Georgia — 41 months

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Office and Families.

Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

Twitter @StateAffairsGA
LinkedIn @StateAffairs

Header image: The first meeting of the Senate study committee on Foster Care and Adoption took place on August 9, 2023. (Credit: Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick)