With the departure of state child protection director Bobby Cagle for a similar position in Los Angeles, Georgia’s foster care system faces a crossroads.
Indeed, Director Cagle has done an admirable job; second to none. As one who has been a foster and adoptive parent myself, Mr. Cagle’s leadership, passion, and drive have created positive changes in the state’s system. As one who consults and works with foster care agencies across the nation and world, I am confident that Los Angeles’ struggling foster care system will begin to turn around and begin to successfully face their challenges, under Mr. Cagle’s experience and leadership.
However, Georgia’s foster care system is still in crisis, as it is across the nation. The last two years have seen an increase in the number of children being placed into foster care, due much in part to the opioid epidemic strangling America. Indeed, Georgia has had the largest increase during this time, as our state has seen the number of children placed into state care rise from 7,600 in September 2013 to a staggering 13,266 in November of 2016.
Yet how do we fix this? How do we best address this crisis in our state? To be sure, Mr. Cagle has laid important groundwork, and made important reforms. There is still much work to do. Here are ways that we can begin to improve Georgia’s foster care.
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▪ School: Our schools are often a place of failure for children in foster care. Children in care are often placed in the wrong classes, never getting the resources they need to succeed. Fifty-five percent of children in foster care will drop out of school at some point. Teachers, caseworkers, and foster parents need to come together to help.
▪ Adoption: When a child is placed into foster care, the initial goal is to have the child reunified with his birth parents, or a member of his biological family. To be sure, the initial intent of placing a child into care is that the placement be a temporary, with reunification the main objective. Yet there are those instances when reunification is not possible, and the child is placed through the court system for adoption.
▪ Therapy: Paperwork. It often interrupts services in many walks of life. It is no different in the foster care world. There needs to be less paperwork, less “red tape” and more action on behalf of the child.
▪ Working with caseworkers: Case workers are under-resourced, underpaid, overworked, and overwhelmed. They simply have too much paperwork, caseloads, responsibilities, and paperwork accountable to them, with less and less time and resources given to make it all work. Our caseworkers need to be given more time, more money, more resources, and more understanding from the public, from the courts, and from foster parents.
▪ Working with birth parents: For many children in foster care, they come from a long cycle of family members placed in foster care. Indeed, many children in foster care have parents who have also been in foster care, or who suffer from their own anxieties and traumas. It is important that foster parents work alongside birth parents of the children, acting as role models, and co-parenting with them, for the sake of the child.
▪ Recruiting More Foster Parents: Make no mistake, there is a shortage of foster parents in our state. More foster parents are needed to care for the larger number of children being placed into the state’s system.
▪ Caring for foster parents: As a foster parent, I assure you that feelings of grief, loss, and burnout are quite real. Our hearts break, because it is like a member of our family is leaving. Indeed, that is the truth. A child we have given all of our unconditional love has left our home, and the grief can be overwhelming at times. More training, understanding, and time to heal from the grief and loss is needed for foster parents.
▪ Child sex trafficking: The world is now starting to wake up to the fact that there is a tremendous and horrific epidemic of child sex trafficking, across the nation, and around the world. What society does not recognize, though, is that many of these children come from the foster care world. Far too many of our children are at risk, and society does not seem to truly recognize or appreciate the danger.
▪ Faith-based organizations: The government simply cannot face these challenges alone. To be sure, for today’s faith based organizations, the foster care crisis is the next mission field in our state, and our nation. Faith based organizations have the opportunity to help children in foster care in a number of ways.
▪ Awareness: To be sure, society as a whole does not understand the foster care world. We need to reshape this conversation, showing and educating all around us what foster parenting is truly like, what the challenges the children face, and how others can help through a number of methods.
John DeGarmo is founder and director of The Foster Care Institute. A foster parent for 14 years, he and his wife have had more than 50 children come through their home in Jasper County, Ga. He is a consultant to foster care agencies, child welfare organizations, and legal firms. firstname.lastname@example.org.