Assessing the Context of Permanency and Reunification in the Foster Care System: Mothers Making a Change Program . 1.1 State and County Information

12/01/2001

Cobb and Douglas counties are just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Cobb County is suburban with approximately 566,000 people, while Douglas County is a smaller rural county currently going through a transition of sprawl and growth, with approximately 90,000 people.(2) In FY 1999, the two counties together investigated about 2,100 CPS cases (1,668 in Cobb; 526 in Douglas), and Cobb County placed 445 children in foster care while Douglas County placed about 150 children. The county-level information provided in this report focuses primarily on Cobb County.(3)

The State of Georgia child welfare system is state-supervised and county-administered. Policy for children in foster care is established at the state-level. Field Coordinators supervise County Directors, who oversee DFCS at the county level. The DFCS manages a unit that provides consultation and support to each county and provide mentors to train new DFCS supervisors. Within each county is a Child Protective Services (CPS) unit, a treatment unit (that manages cases other than long-term foster care cases), and a foster care unit that manages long-term, ongoing cases.

In 1996, Georgia passed a law instituting permanency time frames for children in foster care and emphasizing non-reunification plans for children in care for more than 12 months. This began the process of expediting children who had been lingering in the foster care system into the adoption process. In 1998, Georgia passed State Law 440 to bring the state into full compliance with Adoption and Safe Families (ASFA) provisions.

There is a trend in Georgia to move away from an emphasis on reunification, according to one state administrator we spoke to. Media attention on child fatalities across the state, and the perception that DFCS was not focusing sufficiently on child safety, has prompted an unfriendly climate for reunification. In addition, the new legislation limiting the time children spend in foster care gave emphasis to a shift from reunification to adoption. Between July 1998 and June 1999, approximately 2,100 children exited the Georgia child welfare system. Of that number, about 1,150 (55%) children were adopted, and of those adopted, 85 percent were adopted by their foster parents. Prior to the passage of the 1996 and ASFA laws, the state foster care system was heavily loaded with long-term cases waiting for reunification. However, despite the importance of expediting permanency for children under the new legislation, the state still uses reunification as a child's primary permanency option after placement.

According to the state administrator with whom we spoke, Georgia's 1996 legislation and ASFA prompted changes for DFCS. First, relatives now play a more prominent role in child welfare services since ASFA. When a child enters foster care, as part of the initial assessment, DFCS staff try to identify relatives to see if they can help meet the needs of the child(ren). In any given month, according to the state administrator, DFCS has approximately 2,100 children (19%) statewide placed with relatives, out of approximately 12,000 children in state custody. DFCS looks to relatives to provide permanent homes for children, either through a transfer of custody of the child, or by being foster parents with an ultimate goal of adoption. If a relative becomes a foster parent, he or she must complete the foster parent program (MAPP) in order to receive a per diem foster care payment. DFCS uses relatives for temporary custody situations but limits the amount of time for temporary custody before pursuing a permanent situation. In temporary custody cases, home studies are completed prior to placement, and kin receive TANF payments.(4)

Because of the emphasis on kin care, the state is examining options to provide more support for relatives. DFCS is hoping that legislation recently introduced in the state will provide financial help to kin caregivers. The legislation would allow kin who provide temporary custody to receive a payment equivalent to about 80 percent of the foster care board rate (more than the current TANF rate). Despite the emphasis by state and county administrators on the use of and increase in relative care, Cobb County DFCS reported only a few cases of permanent relative placement over the last few years.

ASFA has made DFCS look closely at its processes for permanency. DFCS has developed training for staff on enhanced family assessment early in a case. The state provides First Placement, Best Placement, a statewide public/private initiative(5), where counties work with a team of professionals to better identify the strengths and needs of families and children. As part of this initiative, DFCS has developed rules and procedures for assessment and follows a detailed assessment system for families. Professionals, such as psychologists, are contracted from the private sector to do assessments on parents and children and take part in the multidisciplinary teams which meet to plan for the child and family. The state hopes that this process will result in better case plans. The state has also developed staff education on utilizing family conferencing. This training has taken place in all counties as of December 2000. Some counties have embraced the concept and done well with it, while others have chosen not to utilize the practice. The hope is that putting effort into the development of assessment and family conferencing practices across the state will show that effort put into the "front end" of a case will result in better outcomes for families on the "back end."

DFCS has begun to develop and closely examine concurrent planning. Its focus is on a clearer understanding of what it means to plan concurrently rather than sequentially. The state administrator told us that more training is needed with staff on this concept in terms of how to operationalize concurrent planning. Training is also needed for foster parents who play a role in the concurrent process. DFCS has a group of foster parents who are successfully working with birth parents, and this group is training other foster parents in the skills and importance of working with birth parents.

The state is also looking closely at reviewing reasonable efforts and compelling reasons for terminating parental rights (TPR). It is getting a clearer notion of what it means to provide compelling reasons to continue reunification efforts under ASFA. The state is becoming more skilled in determining when termination of rights is appropriate for each child and family.

Overall, the state administrator said that ASFA has helped DFCS realize that changes were needed in its permanency practices across the board regardless of whether the child is with a birth, foster, or adoptive family. Moreover, time limits have emphasized the importance of teaching case managers to think about what is best for each individual child rather than simply reacting to problems in a case.

The DFCS in Cobb County has a mission to "help families provide the care, protection and experiences essential to their well-being."(6) Permanency options for children in foster care are established by state policy, and include reunification, relative placement, TPR/adoption, and long-term foster care (for independent living services and emancipation). The primary goal of most children entering foster care in the county is reunification. A Cobb County Administrator reported that reunification is the primary objective and first consideration for every family and child who enter care.

DFCS is mandated to investigate all allegations of abuse and neglect against children 0 to 17 years of age. Calls come in to CPS through a phone intake system. From intake, cases go to a supervisor who determines if criteria establishing abuse and neglect are met or if it is a non-abuse/neglect case. DFCS uses a 23-category, validated risk assessment system that includes a written assessment form. If the assessment shows that the case is not abuse or neglect then the family is referred for privately provided services. Services for these cases are voluntary, and the county pays for a worker to make 10 visits to the family to resolve their issues. If the abuse and neglect criteria are met for a case, it is assigned. A face-to-face visit between a DFCS worker and the family will occur within 24 hours if the case deals with severe neglect or abuse (e.g., sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, child fearful at home) or will occur within 5 days for less severe cases.

DFCS has 30 days to investigate and reach a decision on substantiation. Cases needing services but no foster care placement are transferred to an ongoing unit. If the abuse and neglect are substantiated and the child is in need of removal, then the case will go to Family Court, and law enforcement may be called in for protective custody. If a child is removed from a home by a police officer and placed in a shelter or foster home, the child must appear before the Juvenile Court within 24 hours (or the next business day). The court hearing determines whether the child should remain in care; if not, the child is returned to the parent's custody, and DFCS has 30 days to file a petition for abuse and neglect and 60 days before the next hearing. At the 60-day hearing, the judge will review abuse and neglect evidence and decide whether the child should remain in the home or return to state custody. The judge also reviews a parent's alcohol and drug assessment and decides whether the family needs services, including substance abuse treatment (see the MMAC program description for more details on the referral process for clients in need of substance abuse treatment). If at the 24-hour hearing, the child remains in the custody of child welfare, DFCS has 5 days to file a petition for abuse and neglect and a follow-up hearing is scheduled within 10 days to determine services. Currently, substance abuse is the number one reason for child placement in Georgia.

Cobb County DFCS workers carry a caseload of approximately 40 children per worker. Workers do not provide direct services to families but act as case managers. Direct services to families are contracted out to private providers in the county or region.

Cobb County DFCS provides a variety of reunification services to families. The county is one of the seven demonstration sites for a state reunification initiative called First Placement, Best Placement. In this initiative, counties work with a team of professionals to better identify the strengths and needs of families, and to ensure that children are placed in the setting that best meets their particular needs, thereby decreasing the number of times a child changes placements and increasing stability for the child. The initiative also provides flexible spending of funds for concrete services and was reported by one county administrator to be the first time the county has had money to help families obtain furniture, pay bills, pay rent, and obtain deposits required to work toward their goals. The county also has the Homestead Program, which provides intensive in-home family preservation services to families.

In addition, there are three main programs in the county that specifically focus on treating parents and children with substance abuse problems (MMAC, Georgia Recovery, and MG Counseling). There is also a statewide program focused on the transition of reunification called The Prevention of Unnecessary Out-of-Home Placement program (PUP) which offers family preservation-type in-home services for CPS clients whose children are ready to return home, encouraging a smooth reunification transition. In hopes of increasing the number of visitations between parents and their children, there is a "Starting Over" program, run by St. Julian's in the county, providing extended evening and weekend morning hours to accommodate parent's work schedules and encourage visitation several times per week.(7)

According to the Cobb County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge, the county has increased the number of TPR actions primarily due to the backlog of foster care cases moved toward adoption. Moreover, Cobb County seems to do more TPR cases than other parts of the state. The court has gone through a significant amount of training since ASFA, and judges are writing orders to comply with ASFA requirements. The new state and federal regulations push the court to look at terminations sooner and to consider terminations for cases dealing with older children as well. The judge stated that he has become less tolerant of parents experiencing drug relapse and has been quicker to terminate parental rights in such cases. According to Georgia law, a parent having an uncontrollable substance abuse problem is grounds for TPR.

After a parent's rights are terminated, the state is required by law to look first for a family member or blood relative who might provide permanency for the child. The court can also order or recommend that mediation take place for decisionmaking about the child's placement. Mediation might be recommended when there are a number of family members who do not agree about the appropriate home for the child and do not particularly want to reveal details of private family matters in court. State mediators are used for the process, and mediation often speeds up decisions and allows the child to acquire permanency sooner. According to the judge, greater use of mediation is expected in the future.