By Daniel Bloom and Lynda Carter Cajoleas
As the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and indiscriminate sexual behaviors seems to have been eliminated from society’s value system, many children in Georgia are growing up in situations almost unimaginable thirty years ago. Born with crack cocaine and heroin addictions, or with fetal alcohol syndrome, to drug and alcohol addicted mothers in fatherless homes, unprotected from violence and neglect, these children are a part of what the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect terms a “national emergency.” According to the Board, in the early 1960s there were 60 thousand annual reports of abuse and neglect compared to 3 million today. Between l980 and l991 alone, reports of child abuse and neglect tripled. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect reports that over 1 million cases of child abuse and neglect were substantiated in l994, a number that does not include abused and neglected children that are unknown to the child protection system.
In l994, Georgia reported 63,721 victims of child abuse and neglect, of whom twenty-six died as a result. Seventy-seven percent of the perpetrators were the victim’s parents, and 12% were other relatives and caretakers. Thirty-seven children in Georgia died at the hands of their parents, relatives or other caretaker in l995. (Sixteen of the 37 deaths due to child abuse and neglect were confirmed, while the remaining 21 deaths were suspected to have resulted from child abuse and neglect.)
What we are talking about are situations of serious abuse and neglect — not situations where an overzealous caseworker second guesses how a parent disciplines a child. Examples of the type of abuse this paper is concerned with include, but are not limited to, burning babies and children with cigarettes or hot irons; placing children in scalding hot or ice cold water; drowning them in toilets and bathtubs; breaking their bones; rupturing their stomachs and intestines with a fist or blunt objects; sexual abuse and exploitation; and leaving infants at home alone for several days at a time.
In Georgia, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) includes Child Protective Services (CPS), foster care and adoption services. It is primarily responsible for providing services to abused and neglected children and their families. DFCS received $1.078 billion in FY 1996, $424.8 million of which were state dollars.
The quality of life for children served by DFCS and CPS can be significantly improved through reforms in the areas of child protection, foster care, and adoption services.
As a beginning step in shifting the focus from the current practice of unreasonable family preservation efforts to protection and preservation of seriously abused and neglected children, the l996 Georgia Assembly passed Senate Bill 611. However, given the increasing number of abuse and neglect cases and their severity, even more can and should be done to protect these vulnerable children.
Crimes against children should be treated like all other crimes. CPS should be removed from the intake and investigation of all serious child abuse cases. CPS caseworkers lack the necessary law enforcement training and experience to deal with such serious cases. Yet, caseworkers are currently responsible for conducting the initial investigation of what are, in essence, criminal cases. This should be the responsibility of trained law enforcement personnel. DFCS and CPS should be utilized as a resource when deemed necessary by law enforcement, such as when no safe, suitable extended family is available for substitute care and a child is in need of foster care.
The seriousness of crimes against children and the social consequences of our failure to protect abused and neglected children require a dramatic departure from business as usual. The necessary funding for law enforcement agencies to secure additional staff and training to handle these increased responsibilities would largely come from the reduced investigation caseload of CPS.
Today, “family preservation” is often the sole consideration, even in patently absurd situations, too often resulting in needless suffering by children. State and federal tax dollars are expended to “repair” families that are simply beyond repair. Condoning and subsidizing serious abdications of personal responsibility by abusive and irresponsible parents is inexcusable. The innocent child victim deserves better!
Termination of parental rights should be automatic in cases of abandoned newborns and babies born drug-addicted. To continue handling serious prenatal child abuse and neglect situations by giving priority to family preservation over child preservation, and rehabilitation of an abuser over child protection, is unconscionable. Judges should immediately assign custody of these infants to licensed private adoption agencies for immediate adoption. One strike and you’re out!
In l995, 18,000 children had contact with Georgia’s foster care system, an increase of 1,500 children from the previous year and a 300% increase since the early 1980s. There are just under 12,000 children in some type of foster care in any given month in Georgia.
According to a report from the American Public Welfare Association, the number of children in substitute care is growing 33 times faster than that of the U.S. child population in general. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that at least one-third of foster children who are returned to their families will reenter the system again at a later time. According to private agencies and organizations, these estimates would be much higher, 50-75 percent, if the children who simply run away from home to escape continued abuse and neglect or those who are informally cared for by friends and family are factored into the equation. The private sector would never be allowed such failure rates.
Being forced to enter foster care is always traumatic for a child and should be avoided any time there is an option of a safe and suitable placement with a relative. When this is impossible, however, and foster care is deemed the best alternative, there are several policy changes that would better promote the welfare of the child.
A permanency decision should be finalized within one year of intake. Recently enacted Senate Bill 611 requires DFCS to make a determination regarding the suitability of returning a child to the family within 30 days from the date of removing the child from the home. If DFCS deems the case appropriate for family reunification, a formal plan must be presented to the court setting forth what DFCS proposes as the appropriate course of action in a given situation. For example, parents could be required to undergo drug rehabilitation or parenting classes.
If the court subsequently determines that, because of demonstrated parental inability or unwillingness to adequately care for and protect a child, that family reunification is not prudent, then a motion to terminate parental rights should be filed immediately to expedite permanency planning for the child. Otherwise, irresponsible parents will continue to “imprison their children in a labyrinth of legal battles and parentless foster care.”1 These children, already highly traumatized, are in urgent need of consistency, permanency and the opportunity to bond with adequate substitute caretakers. Too often children have languished in foster care an entire childhood and are “aged out” with absolutely no family support system. This hardly reflects a system that was designed to protect the welfare of children. Court delays, staff changes, etc. should not be allowed to extend the 12 month permanency requirement.
In order to prevent foster children from being continually shuffled from one foster home to another, the court must show through clear and convincing evidence that the child is in danger of physical or sexual abuse and neglect before the child can be removed from a foster home. Unless the child is in immediate danger, foster parents should be given sufficient notice of an intended change and the opportunity to appeal the decision to a community review board which has the authority to make findings and recommendations to the court. When foster parents are treated more professionally and as part of the “team,” the physical and mental welfare of the child will be enhanced.
Children should be placed in foster homes with potential adoptive families whenever possible. Placing a child in a home with foster parents who are interested in adopting a child is currently discouraged, apparently in the belief that these children and their caretakers should not become too attached. However, healthy attachment is exactly what these children need and is the single most important factor in the healthy physical and mental development of a child.
The Department of Human Resources should be made to compete with private agencies for the privilege of caring for foster children. As discussed below, other states have benefited from utilizing private agencies.
Of the 12,000 foster children in Georgia, only 400-500 are currently available for adoption. When private agencies are included in a state’s child protection, foster care and adoption processes, children there tend to experience more positive outcomes and have higher rates of adoption. According to the Institute for Children, Inc., when Michigan privatized two-thirds of its foster care management, private providers ended up spending less per child, yet had lower social worker-to-child ratios than did Michigan’s Department of Human Resources.
Allow private agencies to seek immediate adoption of a child if the Department of Human Resources has not found an adoptive home for the child within 30 days from the date of termination of parental rights. In cases where family reunification is deemed imprudent, temporary custody of the child should be given to the adoption unit or private adoption agency immediately. This will allow the child to be placed in his or her pre-adoptive home without delay.
Enhance personal responsibility by amending current adoption legislation to allow only those biological fathers who have maintained contact with the mother and provided financial support the right to contest a child’s adoption. Due to the immediate bonding needs of an infant and the severe nature and life-long consequences of unsuccessful parent-child bonding, a prospective male parent should be deemed to have legal notice, at the time of sexual intercourse, that he may be impregnating a female, and a lack of knowledge of a child’s birth shall not be a legal justification in contesting the adoption of a child he helped conceive. This will help preclude derelict “fathers” from reentering the picture years later and disrupting an adopted child’s life by challenging the adoption itself.
Amend current adoption legislation to make finalized adoptions incontestable. While current law allows six months to contest an adoption after the date of finalization, the lengthy process and legal requirements of finalizing an adoption affords sufficient time and due process for filing of a contest. To allow contests after the date of finalization of the adoption does not protect the child’s physical and mental welfare.
Because of several high-profile cases in which courts overturned finalized adoptions and removed adopted children from their loving family relationships and from their life-long homes and gave them to virtual strangers, many pre-adoptive families have learned it can be safer to adopt children from foreign countries than to risk an American adoption. Reported cases have involved children between the ages of several months and 11 years. It is inconceivable that any child should ever be forced to leave the safety and security of his or her parent-child relationship and be made to endure such needless trauma.
Lynda Carter Cajoleas is a registered nurse and clinical social worker currently residing in Roswell, Georgia and an affiliate member of The Family Law Section of The Florida Bar. Daniel Bloom is an attorney residing in Atlanta who works with issues affecting children and families. He is a member of both the Georgia and American Bar Associations. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.
Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 5, 1996) Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.