Sunday, January 07, 2007

$11.3 million dollars awarded in lawsuit against Georgia foster care system

The rate of abuse or neglect of foster children in Georgia is nearly twice the federal standard. A civil rights lawsuit was filed against Georgia's Department of Family and Children's Services (DFCS) in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

The purpose of this lawsuit, Kenny A. v. Perdue, was to stop ongoing violations of children's rights and to ensure that DFCS provides proper protection and care for the 3,000 foster children in those two Georgia counties.


In Fulton and DelKalb counties, during fiscal year 2000:

1.) Multiple placements: Approximately 450 children were moved to at least four different placements while in state custody.

2.) Poorly screened foster homes: Over 22% of children were abused by their foster parents or had to be moved from their foster homes due to harmful conditions or treatment.

3.) Prolonged stays:
-Over 50% of foster children had been in foster care for three or more years; almost 25 % had been in foster care for over six years; and over 10 % had been in foster care for over 10 years.

-The majority of foster children in Fulton and DeKalb counties had spent more than half of their entire lives in foster care.

-Moreover, African-American foster children in Georgia were frequently denied placement in adoptive homes on the basis of their race or color, despite the availability of willing and suitable adoptive parents, because their prospective parents were not also African-American. As a result, African-American foster children remained in state custody for unnecessarily long periods of time.

4.) Caseloads and caseworker turnover:
-Foster children regularly went six months or longer with a visit from their caseworker
- Between September 1, 2002 and June 30, 2003, over 68% of foster children had three or more different caseworkers.
-Caseloads ranged between 35-50 children per caseworker.
-Annual caseworker turnover rate was 71% in Fulton County and 33% in DeKalb County.

5.) Denied visitation with siblings: More than 25% of the foster children who had siblings in foster care in different homes were denied even a single visit with their siblings over an 18-month measurement period.

6.) Denied basic health care services. 43% of the youngest foster children, age two and under, did not receive a mandated health check up at any time during the most recent 12-month period of their stay in state custody.

6.) Unsafe emergency shelters: According to the Governor's appointed child welfare monitor, the Fulton shelter is unfit and the DelKalb center is grossly inadequate.

-As many as 28% of Fulton County shelter children and 20% of DeKalb County shelter were missing on any given day during 2001.

-The Fulton shelter was built to house 85 children, but exceeded its licensed capacity by taking in as many was 118. The DelKalb shelter, licensed for 35 children, housed up to 55.

- Shelters did not provide children with needed treatment or services, and exposed them to sexual assault, prostitution, gang activity and illicit drug activity

By stalling this case, the state cost themselves more money
Georgia fought this lawsuit for almost three years, before finally agreeing to:

-Numerical goals for reducing caseworker and supervisor caseloads
-Timelines for responding to reports of abuse and neglect for children in state care
-Increased contact and continuity of relationships between children and their caseworkers
-Specific goals for the quality of foster care environments
-Increased sibling visits and relative placements
-Timelines for delivery of healthcare services for children in state care
-Specific goals related to permanency plans for foster children

U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob awarded fees based on rates as high as $495 an hour for some of the attorneys in the case. He asserted that the state of Georgia is partly to blame because they fought the case so long.

"To a great extent," Shoob said in his decision, "the size of the award reflects state defendant's strategy of resistance against efforts to reform a foster care system that even they ultimately admitted was badly in need of reform."

Who gets the money?
In 2006, $11.3 million was awarded to the plaintiffs in this case. The money was split between New York-based nonprofit Children's Rights Inc., and the Atlanta firm of Bondurant, Mixon and Elmore.

Which leave me wondering how this lawsuit has ultimately affected the welfare and well-being of Georgia foster children.

The lawsuit was originally filed 'on behalf of' nine foster children who had received physical and/or psychological harm. How much of that money was given to them?

None, that I can see. I read the Consent Decree on childrensrights.org and it looks like all they're planning to do for those children is monitor their future placements.

Children's Rights Inc. plans to use their share of the money to fight battles for children's rights elsewhere. This is a worthy goal, but still leaves less money to help Georgia foster children.

The idea behind this lawsuit was to hold the state of Georgia accountable.

As Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of Children's Rights has stated, "Given the state's long-standing knowledge of the harm being inflicted on children in its care, there is simply no excuse for continuing to operate a child welfare system so damaging to vulnerable children. It is time for the court to act, since state officials have failed to protect these children."

Her organization has been successful in bringing this issue to public attention. Doing so took hard work and a lot of time. Plaintiffs in the Kenny A. v Perdue lawsuit obtained over 75,000 documents from DFCS and the Department of Human Resources in the case and have taken over 30 depositions of DFCS managers and administrators. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be compensated for their efforts.

However, with less money available and more demands placed on the state, I wonder what the state success rate will be in complying with the lawsuit's demands, which include 31 outcome measures?

Ultimately, it seems that children will pay the price:
"Eleven million dollars could pay the salaries of every caseworker in Fulton County for a year, or it could pay for more than 1,800 children in foster care for a year," said B.J. Walker, the commissioner of the state Department of Human Resources. "Children are the losers."

Sources:
Foster Care Update: Kenny A. v Perdue. Action News WSBTV, Sept. 15, 2006.
Hess provides research revealing that foster children are unsafe and underserved in Atlanta, Georgia. News Release: Institute for Families in Society. Nov. 18, 2003.
Judge awards $11.3 million in foster care lawsuit. Associated Press, October 2006.
State agrees on settlement in Kenny A. lawsuit. Press release from the Georgia Department of Human Resources, July 5, 2005.
Wooten, Jim. Best interest of child carries little weight. Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 6, 2007.

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Comments:
Lisa, I love your blog! I am so glad that you are putting out this information and that you work so hard advocating for the rights of foster care youth. I wish there were efficiant ways of bringing reform without a lawsuit that wouldn't benefit the children anyway. The state fought a lawsuit for three years, so I don't hold much hope for letter writing.
 
Thanks, Christine,

If you come up with any creative ideas, please let me know.

I really appreciate your support,
Lisa
 
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