TIFTON – The numbers are staggering and growing, with 13,873 Georgia children in foster care.
In every county, the number of children needing foster care easily outstrips the number of available foster homes, according to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.
Numbers and Foster Families
Laura Maxwell, founder and executive director of Called to Care, a non-profit ministry that works to support foster families, said while Tift County has a shortage of foster families, it is better than it used to be.
“We’ve been working really hard to recruit and educate people about it,” she said. “About 85 percent of married couples talk about fostering or adopting at some point but only 5 percent ever do it. There’s a lot of fear associated with it.”
She said educating the community about the facts and rallying community support around foster families have helped increase the numbers.
“In Tifton when we started, there were 19 foster families,” she said. “Now we’re close to 40 foster families in the last five years.”
She said even with the increase, there aren’t nearly enough foster families.
It is a shortage felt throughout the SunLight Project area of Dalton, Milledgeville, Moultrie, Thomasville, Tifton and Valdosta.
With only 12 foster parents in Colquitt County, and a limit of six children at most in one foster family, the demand far outstrips the supply.
For those who do foster, it takes a commitment.
“I think they feel a calling for it,” Meredith Willis, director at Colquitt County DFCS, said. “It’s got to be a calling from your heart to do it.”
Danny Nuckolls, Whitfield County DFCS director, said the county currently has 32 DFCS-approved foster homes – not including those that work with private agencies.
"We need to, at least, double that number to meet our needs," he said.
Thomas County has 21 foster families fostering 62 children.
Ronn Ross, Thomas County DFCS, said there are 772 foster children in the division's 14-county Region 10.
"We're always recruiting for foster families," Ross said. "We never have enough."
In the past five years, there has been an increase of about 60 percent in Georgia foster children needing homes.
“We have a problem number wise,” said Gail Finley, DFCS director for Lowndes County. “We have 1,200 foster kids and 192 foster families. That is covering 18 counties. We have increased (by) nine homes from last year. That is an increase, but that is by very small increments.”
Why the increase?
For Willis the equation is simple: Too much meth and too few foster families.
Colquitt County saw a jump in children who spent at least part of the year in foster care beginning in 2015. In that year, the number increased to 164 from 110 the previous year.
It rose again to 191 in 2016, before declining during the next two years. However, through the first four months of 2019, the number of children who have spent time in foster care is at 93.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve had a significant increase,” Willis said. “I would say that (methamphetamine) is the number one reason kids come into the system. Meth and mental health, those would be our two biggest reasons for the increase. And those two are linked.”
She said she has seen an increase in the numbers of children going into care.
“Just a few years ago there were around 8,000 kids in care,” she said. “We’re over 15,000 now in the state. Every county is rising.”
Maxwell said they are seeing a lot of children coming into care because of drug addiction and mental illness in parents.
“There’s a lot of talk about opioids, but meth is probably one of the worst to me,” she said. “I’m seeing moms and dads that just can’t kick the drugs of today. It really takes over their body and they literally can’t survive without it.”
She said mothers would give children up for adoption more often in the past if they didn’t feel they could parent or provide for them, but more social welfare programs are leading to more people keeping children because they feel they are better able to care for them.
“A lot of times, those people really can’t (parent),” she said. “There’s a lot of factors to why they probably can’t parent. A lot of them are trying, so we see a lot of children come into care at age 1, 2, 3 years old when the parents realize that they probably really can’t parent.”
Maxwell said sometimes children going into foster care are part of a generational cycle, with their parents being in foster care and having aged out.
“A lot of them become teen parents themselves,” she said. “They get into prostitution and drugs to support themselves and eventually their children end up in care, too.”
She said children raised in the system experience a lot of trauma, which is often not addressed.
“If you never had a family, or you go from home to home, or even group home to group home, being passed around and the grief of loss of losing their biological parents causes so much trauma that it follows them into adulthood,” Maxwell said. “Everyone experiences trauma, but some people get stuck there.”
She said most of the time, the reason children come into care is not abuse, but poverty and its effects.
"Very few people actually hurt their kids," Maxwell said. "It's mostly neglect due to poverty. A lot of times these moms even work, but they're single moms and they just can't make it."
Maxwell explained she sees a lot of people struggling to make ends meet on a single income and many people who are going hungry don't apply for assistance because they are afraid of their children being taken away.
"They're so terrified," she said. "They think that DFCS and the police are going to take their kids, so they continue to suffer and their kids suffer, because they are so scared."
Ross attributed some of the increase to a statewide call center established in 2014 for reporting child abuse.
"Anybody in the state of Georgia can call and make a child abuse report," Ross said.
Reports previously were made locally in each Georgia county.
In 2018, 129,000 child abuse reports were processed in Georgia.
"That's a lot of reports," Ross said.
Some couples in custody battles make false child abuse reports to get revenge against the other parent, Ross said.
Another reason for the increase is that today, many more people are mandated reporters of child abuse. It is no longer only law enforcement and hospitals, but anyone connected with children is considered a mandated reporter.
Among other reasons for the increase are illegal drugs in homes, domestic violence and financial woes that result in children being removed from homes.
“A lot of it stems from drug issues,” Finley said. “There are a lot of kids who are victims of parents with high drug use. The next (reason) can be violence, whether it involves the kids themselves or not. Sometimes it’s chronic neglect, and we’ve brought some in for sexual abuse.”
The Foster Process
Finley said putting kids in a foster care unit is a last resort. They try multiple measures before having to put them in care.
“Anything we can do that would be less traumatizing to the kids, we’re going to do that,” she said. “When you have stronger families, you have a stronger Georgia. We want to keep them at home without compromising safety.”
When drugs are a factor in a parent losing custody, a juvenile court judge requires proof the parent has been clean for at least six months before children can be placed back in the home, Willis said.
“A judge can require up to 12 months substance-free,” she said.
Whenever possible, caseworkers try keeping children with family members. When a parent or relative is not an option, sometimes children can be placed with a friend of a parent.
When a child is removed from birth parents, juvenile court prepares a plan for the child's return.
Pointing out that May is Foster Care Appreciation Month, Ross said parents have 12 months to get the child back. He said by the 15th month, federal law requires DFCS to file for termination of parental rights.
“Our belief is every child deserves a family that is going to protect them that makes sure their needs are met,” Finley said. “When their biological families are not able to provide them that, we are charged with looking for them a loving family that is going to help them get to their next chapter. That is after we have tried everything.”
If there isn’t enough room for a child in their county, DFCS starts looking at surrounding counties for placements, then at the region, then statewide.
Shortage of foster families
Maxwell said one of the things she sees that deters people from becoming foster families is vaccines.
"You have to vaccinate all of your biological children to be a foster parent," she said. "A lot of people don't become foster parents because of that. They'll sign up to become foster parents, but many, many people do not vaccinate their children at all. That may seem crazy, but we're seeing that a lot. DFCS says that they cannot place a child in a home with unvaccinated children because they have to protect these children."
She said people are afraid abused children will turn around and abuse the foster parents' biological children.
"The reality is that most children have never been abused," she said. "That's not the norm. Most children are coming into care because their parents use drugs or the children are born addicted to drugs. But children are not coming into care that have been raped or molested. Not that that doesn't happen, but there aren't a bunch of children who were sexual assault victims that are now predators like you see on TV. That's not really happening."
Many potential foster parents have concerns about how big their home is or how many biological children they already have, Maxwell said. She families with six or more children living at home are ineligible to foster.
"There are policies and procedures in place for sleeping arrangements, but the number of bedrooms or the number of children you have are not a factor," she said.
"The number one reason (people don't want to foster) is 'I can't get attached,'" she said. "I usually tell them, 'You would make a perfect foster parent if you get too attached and love too hard.' Nobody can be loved too much or by too many people.
"We all deserve to be loved," she said. "You have to be willing to be hurt so they don't. They need someone to attach to them and love them fearlessly. If you want them to grow up and be functioning adults in our society, they need to be loved relentlessly."
In Valdosta, the local DFCS office is working on increasing the number of foster families in the area.
“We are working on a project to help find a way to find more foster parents,” Finley said.
That project is Bridge 11, a partnership between the DFCS office and Choices for Life of Georgia, a private, therapeutic foster-care service.
“To recruit, train and maintain private foster homes takes a lot of staff time and financial resources,” said Sara Riley, executive director of Choices for Life. “We have always been a child-placing agency that has worked within the community, but this was an opportunity to partner and take away that burden off of one agency. Basically, we do it as a community with other child-placing agencies. We share trainings, information, advertising costs and other resources. That way, one agency isn’t tasked with all that is involved in being in foster care.”
Four years ago, Whitfield County residents Scotty and Tara Howe were attending a church with two other couples who were foster parents.
"We became friends with them," Scotty Howe said.
Tara Howe already knew a little about foster care since her family had fostered several children.
"It's just something that kept coming up, and we felt like we were called to do it," she said.
They called the state adoption and foster care line at (877) 210-5437 (KIDS), which put them in touch with the local Division of Family and Children Services office, which sent them information and arranged for them to attend an orientation meeting.
"Once we got more information and were able to ask questions, we just knew we had to do this," Tara said. "There are so many children that need a family to take care of them until their parents get their work done or until they are adopted by someone else."
After passing a criminal background check, couples looking to foster must attend 15 hours of training of topics such as the process of how a child comes into foster care and what determines how long the child will remain in foster care.
The Howes said they have fostered about 50 children.
"Some of them were just for a couple of months," Tara said. "Several were just a few weeks. But we've had them for up to three years. We’ve taken in children from eight to 10 months, all the way up to 17."
The Howes said when children come into their home, the children are often confused and frightened.
"Even though there's often abuse or neglect or drugs, the kids still usually don't understand why (they have been taken from their parents)," Tara said.
The goal is typically to reunite children with their parents after the parents have corrected whatever issues were present. If that can't be done, officials try placing the child with another family member, and if that can't be done, officials seek a permanent home with an adoptive family.
"You do get attached to them. Some grab your heart more than others. It's difficult to see them go, but it's worth it to know they do have a home. It's always about what is best for the child," Scotty said. "Any difficulties or hard times or heart breaks are outweighed by seeing where they came into our house and to see them when they left. We often also see the changes on the parents and that is gratifying as well. Tara really works with the parents to help them get their kids back. She has helped them find apartments, helped them find jobs."
The Howes encourage anyone interested in becoming a foster parent to contact the foster care line and learn more.
They said if someone decides they can't make the commitment to be a foster parent they might want to be a respite caregiver, someone who receives the same training as a foster parent and can step in to care for the children when the foster parents need a night or weekend to themselves.
"It's a very involved process to become a foster parent,” Ross said.
A foster parent cannot have a criminal record, no Child Protection Services history, and must have a home, space and income to provide for a child’s needs.
Angela Petty, a Thomasville resident, fosters two brothers, ages 2 and 9. The older child was abused while the mother was pregnant with the younger boy.
Petty has fostered 15 children since 2006. She and her husband adopted two former foster children, now ages 17 and 26. She also has two biological children, ages 27 and 23.
Petty said about seven years are required for a child to overcome circumstances that led to the foster situation.
She has fostered African-American, Latino, biracial and Caucasian children.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done,” Perry said of being a foster parent, “but the most rewarding thing I've ever done."
Six weeks of training are required to become a foster parent, along with a home evaluation, drug screening, a criminal background check, a CPS history check and fingerprinting.
DFCS checks on foster children monthly, and a foster parent's home is re-evaluated annually.
People live in bubbles and do not realize the needs of foster children or the need for more foster homes, Petty said.
If a foster child has a need not funded by the program, the foster parents pay and are reimbursed by DFCS.
Petty, who works outside the home, knows she will have to give up her foster children to their parents or to adoption.
"But, in the meantime, you love them like your own," Petty said.
Felecia Denson, a foster parent through Lowndes County DFCS, has been fostering since May 2014.
Denson and her husband, Lester, have had a total of 19 kids in and out of their home. They have five adopted kids and two other foster kids currently.
She said when she first started looking into fostering, they noticed a need.
“I’ve always taken in kids, whether it was my god kids or a friend that needed help” she said. “I had a discussion with my husband, and we decided to become foster parents.”
Felecia works on the weekends in home senior care, while Lester works at Sunset Farms during the week, so it requires a team effort to make it work.
“We have learned so much,” she said. “Every child we have is different in every way possible. We have some come in for neglect, drugs or child abuse — it ranges. You have to do your research beforehand. If you don’t, you’re lost. It’s always a learning experience.”
Family First Prevention Services Act
Maxwell said the Family First Act helps keep kids in their communities. The Family First Act was signed by the Trump administration in February 2018.
The federal act keeps kids out of foster care by allowing federal reimbursement for mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting skill training.
“Children have to be placed with relatives first,” she said. “There’s a lot of good in that, but there’s also some bad.”
Sometimes, the relative's home environment is no different than the home of the children's parents.
Maxwell said grandparents often take in children who would otherwise go into foster care and sometimes grandparents are elderly individuals who are not physically or financially able to properly provide for the children.
The Family First Act gives relatives the financial support that was going to group homes, but Maxwell said support won't kick in until the children have been with the relative for more than a year.
In the meantime, relatives are supported by organizations such as Called to Care until the federal funds kick in.
"We are doing a ton of support," Maxwell said. "We help prevent children from coming into care by providing for the needs the families have so the kids never come into care."
According to KidsCount.org, the number of children in Georgia who are reunified with their parents or placed with a family member within 12 months of entering foster care was 2,799 in 2018. That was 58.4 percent of the total.
In 2018, 60 percent of the children who entered foster care were reunited with their parents or were placed with a family member within that timeframe.
Along with the increase in numbers the agency is seeing, reunions with families and adoption levels also have been up. In 2016 when 191 children spent time in foster care, there were 39 children reunited with their families and 16 adoptions. Adoptions in 2014 and 2015 were nine and eight, respectively.
In 2018, there were 20 reunions and 22 adoptions, and so far in 2019 there have been four of each.
The Family First Act incentivizes states to reduce or eliminate the number of children in group homes.
"Group homes will be closing unless they are privately funded," Maxwell said. “They gave them 24 months to find placements for all those children before they close their doors.
"The reason why the government said this, and this is just layman's terms, is that families should take care of families."
Maxwell said she agrees because it is the best thing for children to stay with people they know and love.
"Honestly, the biggest trauma sometimes is not being beaten or sexually abused or seeing domestic violence, it's the removal from your mother," she said. "It has to be done. They have to save these children or they might end up dead. But for the children, a lot of the trauma comes from being separated from their mom and dad, in spite of whatever happened in that home. And then being separated from cousins, their school, they're cut off from everything."
The act also allows for what Maxwell calls "fictive kin," such as teachers, coaches and church members taking children if there is no family willing or able.
"If there is nobody safe or willing, then they go into traditional foster care," Maxwell said. "It only works if people say yes."
She said even though there are some "amazing" group homes, the federal government feels the homes overall "do not produce good citizens."
She said federal funds that were going to group homes will go toward families who take in children.
"It is happening big time," she said. "We're seeing a ton of relative placements and fictive kin placements."
Group homes closing will have the biggest effect on teenagers, who are traditionally difficult to place.
"We have over 1,000 kids over 14 in our region," she said. "Some of them are amazing kids. Full rides to college and nobody wants them because they're teenagers. I don't know what's going to happen to them."
Maxwell said the ultimate goal of foster care is for children to be reunified with their parents.
"We're seeing about down the middle, if they're going to reunify or not," she said. "If it's their first offense, they try to reunify within six months, if they can. Sometimes these cases go on and on and on. At some point you have to say enough is enough."
The newly signed Georgia law, "Broken Road Home," seeks to prevent these cases from being dragged out.
The law limits the time parents have to turn things around and get their kids back to one year.
"Right now, in Tifton, we've got kids who were born into foster care, left the hospital with a foster family and are 2 and 3 years old," she said. "There's a chance they could still go home to their mom. Now you're fixing to separate them from the only mom, dad, brothers and sisters they've ever known. Now who is traumatizing who?
"We are pro-unification," she said. "We want the children back with their moms, and the foster families we recruit do, too. They actually work very hard with the mom whose children they have to try to help them."
She said drug addiction and relapse are the biggest reasons reunification doesn't happen.
"We've seen a lot of really great success," she said. "We worked with two moms who came out of a one-year rehab and did amazing and got all their kids back."
In addition to Eve Copeland-Brechbiel, SunLight Project reporters Alan Mauldin, Katelyn Umholtz, Matt Hamilton, Patti Dozier contributed to this report.