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

Panel: Child welfare system still broken
Ron Martz - Staff
Tuesday, April 18, 2000
Here are the key recommendations of the Child Protective Services Task Force to Safeguard Georgia's Children:
  • Establish a statewide or regional child abuse reporting system with toll-free numbers staffed by highly trained and certified workers who will make initial assessments and contact local response personnel.
  • Create a statewide child abuse registry that tracks children who have been the subject of abuse or neglect from county to county, as well as their abusers.
  • Expand the Georgia Network of Child Advocacy Centers based on judicial circuits and community needs to allow better coordination of cases involving sexual abuse of children and severe physical abuse.
  • Increase the flexibility in Juvenile Court hours to include evenings and Saturdays to allow families more options to attend court.
  • Create and staff Special Child Death Investigator positions in each judicial circuit.
  • Enhance home visitation services for at-risk families and children as primary prevention tools to keep them out of the system.
  • Increase the number of caseworkers to levels consistent with national standards for acceptable workloads.
  • Increase minimum educational requirements for caseworkers.
  • Provide caseworkers with cell phones, laptop computers, cameras and access to state vehicles based on the needs of the individual assignments.

For the second time in 11 years an independent task force has found Georgia's child welfare system in serious disrepair and in need of a major overhaul if the state's children are to be adequately protected from abuse and neglect.

The Child Protective Services Task Force put the onus on Gov. Roy Barnes, the General Assembly and local communities to make available the resources necessary to implement "fundamental changes" in the system.

Audrey Horne, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, said Barnes was apprised last week of the progress of the task force but was not given any specific recommendations at that time.

"He was very supportive. He understands the real big picture," said Horne, who appointed the task force in December to come up with solutions to problems within the Division of Family and Children Services.

Although it has been meeting only since Jan. 25, the task force found that "while many of the issues plaguing these children have been known for some time, the state has repeatedly failed to take appropriate administrative, legislative and financial action to address fundamental accountability, policy, practice and human resource issues."

These findings, along with more than 50 recommendations for changing the system, are being finalized at a two-day meeting of the task force in Atlanta, which began Monday.

The task force was scheduled to release its final report Thursday but decided Monday night to submit a preliminary report instead and request more time to develop a more detailed report because of the complexity of the issues.

"Any reasonable person knows our time line was too short to do good, quality work," said task force member Otis Johnson, dean of Savannah State University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

The latest draft of the report recommends the task force be kept in place for up to 18 months to help oversee implementation of the plans. The first 90 days would involve developing more specific recommendations.

Horne appointed the task force following a series of stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that described in detail the numerous failures of the child protective services system and the deaths of hundreds of Georgia children after they had been the subject of reports to the state of abuse or neglect.

Horne's mandate to the panel was to look at all aspects of the system, especially the Division of Family and Children Services, and to recommend whatever changes are necessary to better protect children.

Despite having less than three months to complete its work, task force Chairwoman Ann Cramer of Atlanta said the 15-member panel and dozens of experts who served on committees tried to focus more on what was best for the children and not so much on the processes.

"The hope is that we had that kind of focus on the children in the report," Cramer said Monday.

Many of the conclusions and recommendations mirror the 1989 report of the Governor's Task Force on Unexplained Child Fatalities. It also was spurred by a series of stories in the Journal-Constitution about shortcomings in the system. Like the current report, the 1989 findings concluded that "fundamental changes are essential for the protection of the children in Georgia."

That earlier task force report prompted a series of new laws designed to effect reform in the system. Among them were a statewide computerized child abuse registry, more CPS caseworkers, better training for caseworkers and less restrictive confidentiality laws to promote accountability.

The task force bluntly noted that "past efforts to address problems have met with insufficient appropriations, competing political priorities as well as bureaucratic inertia that have collectively stalled implementation."

But the new report includes recommendations for a toll-free statewide hotline for reporting abuse and expansion of the Georgia Network of Child Advocacy Centers that deal with sexual and extreme physical abuse.

Georgia "lacks, and desperately needs, a comprehensive community-based system that effectively connects families, schools, courts, faith communities, service providers, and others who care about families and children at the community level," the task force said in its report.

DFACS caseworkers were also singled out for additional resources, including pay raises, laptop computers, cameras, cell phones and access to state vehicles. Task force member Cherry Cornelius, a DFACS case manager in Fulton County, said the additional resources may help slow the turnover rate and reduce the cynicism she sees among caseworkers.

"They are at a point where they feel they want a change that's going to have an effect on them," Cornelius said. "They want those things they can see and that will change their daily workload to reduce their stress. We're not asking for a lot."

Mindful of the lack of changes after the 1989 report and 1990 laws, the task force urged that an oversight body be put in place to make sure that the changes are implemented.

"We must make certain that positive changes actually take place and we are not doomed to once again repeat this process after still more children needlessly die," the report read.

The task force also recommended that the governor appoint a Cabinet Council of key state agency commissioners to develop and carry out a plan for making the recommended changes.

"The task force says our body, or someone, needs to be out there to make sure (the report) lives and breathes and just doesn't sit on a shelf somewhere," Cramer said.

The report did not speculate on a price tag for the changes. "More important than what it will cost to make these changes is what it will cost if we don't make them," Cramer said.

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