(This is a copy of the
original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12.05.99]
These empty shoes represent the 844 children who died over 6 years after their families were reported for mistreating a child. Many died suspiciously or from neglect. Most of their lives and deaths went unnoticed. Until now.
Reform falls short; children pay price
At the conclusion of the 1990 General Assembly session, then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris proclaimed a new day for abused and neglected children in Georgia. House Speaker Tom Murphy said passage of seven child welfare reform bills was "long overdue." Then-Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, who wrote most of the legislation, gushed, "I'm happy, I'm thrilled and just extremely pleased."
Today, Oliver is less effusive.
"I won't say that the legislation was worthless," she said. "It was well-meaning. But children are still in danger because it wasn't implemented fully."
The laws were designed to correct a child welfare system that had fallen into disarray. In 1989, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 51 Georgia children had died after local Departments of Family and Children Services had received complaints about treatment by their families. Back then, it was a revelation that so many parents mistreated or killed their children, and the public reacted swiftly and strongly, demanding change.
Email staff writer Jane O. Hansen Continued on next page
A judge ordered the state to release confidential files on how it handled cases of 844 children who later died.
The Georgia Legislature responded, passing what they believed would be sweeping reform:
Teams were to be set up in every county to investigate children's deaths, learn from mistakes and save other children's lives.
A computerized tracking system was to be created to help police and child welfare workers keep tabs on potentially abusive parents.
The state's outdated coroners' system was to be overhauled to improve the investigation of suspicious deaths by creating a statewide medical examiners' system.
Confidentiality restrictions were to be loosened, especially to make the records of dead children more open to public scrutiny.
Nearly 10 years later, more than a third of Georgia's counties don't regularly review children's deaths, the tracking system has been weakened, and the secrecy surrounding the lives and deaths of children remains as strong as steel. Only growth of the medical examiners' system appears to be on track.
The 1990 law allowing some public access to the records of dead children had never been used until The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked to see the files in 1997. Michael Thurmond, then head of Georgia DFACS, refused, saying in a letter to the editor "there has been no increase in child deaths...What a waste of energy to chase wolves that aren't there." Under the law, the newspaper appealed to Fulton County Juvenile Court, which granted access to the records.
The Legislature in 1990 also approved nearly $7 million to fund the reforms, create the nation's first training institute for child welfare workers and hire 271 more child protective caseworkers. But today Georgia has fallen further behind, ranking among the five states with the highest rate of children abused. Yet it has only 765 caseworkers to respond to the more than 70,000 reports of neglect and abuse it receives each year.
"You have more firemen in Atlanta protecting against fire than caseworkers in the whole state of Georgia protecting kids," says David Hellwig, head of child protective services for the state. As a result of the shortfall, people charged with making life-and-death decisions for children often have dangerously high caseloads. In urban areas such as Atlanta, caseworkers have carried as many as 50 troubled families at a time, compared to the nationally recommended limit of 17. Last year, in many of the state's urban counties, more than half the caseworkers quit their jobs.
Salaries are so low that Georgia social workers with college degrees often earn a starting salary of $21,000, just under the $21,277 starting salary paid to Atlanta garbage collectors. Some caseworkers are eligible for welfare.
"Caseworkers are paid dirt," said Cobb County Juvenile Court Judge James Morris. "The job is so frightening, so unrewarding. The state's got a responsibility to protect these children, but it can't protect them without a core of qualified caseworkers."
At a meeting in October, Morris joined other juvenile court judges in voting to make higher salaries and lower caseloads for caseworkers among their top legislative priorities. And they will throw their weight behind funding for more specialized foster care homes for the growing number of disturbed youngsters damaged by years of abuse.
If state lawmakers do not respond to what a number of judges call a child protection crisis, some predict the courts will ultimately do it for them. In some states, a Cobb County lawyer told the judges, courts have placed entire child welfare agencies in receivership to force lawmakers to spend the money on necessary improvements.
"You either get ahead of it or you say nobody had the guts to do it, and you have a judge take care of it," said Kathleen Dumitrescu, whose lawsuit against the state in 1993 resulted in a new juvenile detention facility in Cobb County. "This is where we're going. We're headed at high speed into a wall."
Confidentiality still bars public scrutiny
It is no longer a revelation that children die at the hands of their parents or guardians. It's just that many citizens and politicians in Georgia assumed the problems had been fixed with the 1990 laws.
But the records of the hundreds of children who have died in the six years between 1993 and 1998 reveal many of the same problems that plagued the system a decade ago: overworked and poorly trained caseworkers, disorganized records, a lack of specialized programs for sick babies and disturbed children, and a critical shortage of in foster homes. There is still too little sharing of information with doctors, teachers and others who could help, and there are still too many parents disabled by drugs and alcohol.
Oliver, the former legislator, says one of the biggest problems is a lack of a reliable data system. "I don't think we have a good enough information system that tells us where these children are, what's being done for them and what their current level of endangerment is," she says.
With confidentiality barring the public from knowing the extent of the problems, politicians often lack the will to do anything, child advocates say. "These issues are so difficult and intractable," Oliver says. "They reflect the underbelly of Georgia's prosperity, and that is child poverty and child endangerment. These are things that nobody really wants to highlight for many reasons: They fan racial tensions and they focus on people's behavior that many middle-class people don't believe is solvable."
In the meantime, hanging in the balance are the lives of hundreds of Georgia's babies and children. Nathan, James and Whitney were only three.
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