Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1.13.2000]

DFACS needs overhaul
Prosecuting workers not enough to protect kids in the future.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation swooped down on child welfare offices in six counties this week and confiscated files on 13 children who died after their families had been reported for abuse or neglect. Gov. Roy Barnes ordered the seizures after reviewing the cases and finding evidence of potential criminal acts.

The presence of TV crews infused the moment with high drama. However, theatrics will not solve the problems dogging the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Child protective services remain underfunded and overburdened despite major reforms a decade ago. Few Georgians understand the problems because the confidentiality rules that supposedly protect the privacy of families and children actually shield the state agency from scrutiny.

The Atlanta Constitution took the state to court to open up the records of 844 children known to have died over a five-year period after coming to the attention of social workers. If Barnes hopes to prevent future deaths, prosecuting social workers won't do it. Nor is it enough for Barnes to ask the Legislature to create a child advocacy office to oversee and investigate DFACS. That's a good start - but only that.

The governor ought to overhaul child protective services by adopting the same ambitious game plan he's applied to education. Assemble the state's best minds and assign them a mandate: Reinvent the system so that children finally come first.

Any reforms would be futile without vastly improved salaries to recruit and retain qualified people. Barnes would have to play smart politics to get increased funds from the Georgia General Assembly, a body historically more comfortable dispensing pieties about children than money to safeguard them.

For example, foster parents in Georgia are reimbursed for a child's care at a rate of $11.10 per day. And Georgia's social workers with college degrees often earn starting salaries of $21,000, slightly below the starting pay of Atlanta garbage collectors.

As Cobb County Juvenile Court Judge James Morris says, "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."

The newspaper's investigation into the deaths of several children showed that some child welfare workers violated state policies and ignored warning signs that kids were in real jeopardy in their homes. They ought to be held accountable if the GBI's probe indicates that their failures crossed from careless to criminal.

The state cannot pledge that no Georgia child will ever die of abuse or neglect. But it ought to be able to say that it did everything possible to prevent the death.

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