Georgia has a foster care problem. There are more children in foster custody than ever before and not enough homes to house them.
County, state and federal agencies all work together to care for foster children, but resources can be hard to come by. Bibb County’s own Division of Family and Children Services just suffered a 25-percent cut in county funding for fiscal 2019, receiving more than $200,000 less than it did in fiscal 2018.
“The level of the cut was a little surprising to us,” said Shannon Fields, director of the Bibb County DFCS office. “So we’ve had to, you know, kind of assess what we’re able to do, and we’ve had some challenges, just trying to ensure that some of those services can continue.”
Children are entering the foster care system at unprecedented rates nationwide. There were 437,465 children in foster care in the U.S. at the end of fiscal 2016, up from 396,966 in fiscal 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The number of youth entering state custody has increased each year since 2012, surpassing those leaving the system.
In Georgia, the number of children in foster care rose almost 60 percent between 2010 and 2017, climbing from 12,923 to 20,534. The state is on pace to meet or exceed that number in 2018, with nearly 19,500 in its custody already this year.
And though the state has stepped up its funding to DFCS for fiscal 2019, many communities still face an obstacle that will be difficult to overcome with money alone: there simply aren’t enough foster families to take kids in.
Bibb County has 265 children in state custody, but only 60 DFCS foster homes.
“The number of homes that we have don’t match the number of children,” Fields said.
Experts attribute multiple factors to the growth of children in foster care. Drug abuse accounts for about a third of child removals nationwide, and some research suggests the opioid crisis has played a role in the uptick.
More concerted efforts to raise awareness about child maltreatment could have also contributed to the increase. For example, the number of Georgia children in foster custody jumped by almost 20 percent between 2014 and 2015, the year the state launched a hotline to report allegations of child maltreatment.
But oftentimes the reasons children are removed from their homes are complex, Fields said.
“We’re dealing with families, you know, who have different dynamics than in the past — multilayered issues that they’re just not able to overcome,” she said. “Also, we also have a lot of family members who are telling us that they’re not able to meet the needs of their children.”
DFCS’s primary goal is to keep families together, Fields said, adding that the division tries to provide support services before separating children from their parents whenever possible.
Early intervention can mitigate issues before things snowball out of control, as long as children aren’t in immediate danger.
“There is that opportunity, before children come into care, for us to work with the families to maintain them in the home,” Fields said.
Georgia has ramped up its efforts in recent months to keep children in their parents’ care, according to DFCS Legislative and Communications Director Walter Jones. He said the efforts could protect children from the trauma of family separation.
But when a child’s security and well-being are at risk, the court intervenes, and the child embarks down the long and winding road through the foster system.
Judge Thomas J. Matthews has noticed several patterns during his decades presiding over foster cases in the Juvenile Court of Macon-Bibb County. He’s watched multiple generations pass through the system, perpetuating cycles that can be hard to break.
“I have had cases where I dealt with the grandmother years ago, and then the mother not that long ago, and then a child is sort of heading in that same direction,” Matthews said. “When you don’t raise children with love and security, you get consequences. ... How does a child grow up to be a good parent but by seeing good parenting done to them?”
Matthews’ job is to decide if parents are ready to regain custody of their children, or if their parental rights should be terminated.
Family reunification is always the ultimate aim, and Matthews said that watching happy kids return to their parents is the most rewarding part of his job. Those reunions don’t come without cooperation though.
“Parents have to be willing to work with us and resolve the issues that caused there to be a safety problem,” Fields said. “And a lot of times, they’re very, very willing.”
In those cases, children return to their homes, once the judge determines that it’s safe. Other times, Fields said, “it’s just not possible.”
Then the state has to find the children a new home.
Where do the kids go?
When there aren’t enough foster homes to accommodate the number of foster children in a community, those kids can end up in a number of places. Some are sent far from Bibb County to foster families across the state. Others go to local private agencies, like HOPE Foster Care.
“Our goal as a foster care agency is to be (of) assistance to DFCS,” said Beth Greene, director of HOPE Foster Care. “We know that DFCS is overwhelmed and overburdened with the work that they have. And so, we recruit foster families and support foster families to help them meet the needs of the kids that are placed in their home.”
A branch of The Methodist Home, HOPE Foster Care operates in Macon, Columbus and Americus. Greene hopes to enlist more central Georgia residents to meet the growing demand for foster care in the region.
“We have birth families that live here in Macon and they’re working on a reunification case plan, but their kids are placed in a foster home in north Georgia. It makes it very difficult for reunification to happen,” Greene said. “So we are trying to recruit families in the Middle Georgia area to serve kids that are from this area.”
Keeping displaced children close to home can also provide a bit of normalcy in an otherwise unstable time. It not only allows them to stay close to family and friends, but also to avoid switching schools.
“People don’t realize how far behind kids in foster care are in school, and it has nothing to do with their academic or intellectual ability,” Greene said. “It’s because they’ve changed schools six times in one year. And so, their records are lost or they they’re constantly trying to pick back up.”
Couple opens group home
Jasper County resident John DeGarmo noticed the lack of foster families in Middle Georgia and decided to do his part to fill the void. He and his wife, Kelly DeGarmo, just opened a group home in Monticello, called Never Too Late, which can house up to 16 boys.
The couple received their first foster placement in the new home this week, and they’ve already gotten phone calls asking them to take in several more.
DeGarmo has fostered nearly 60 kids during the past 16 years and has adopted three of his former foster children. He’s also written several books about foster care and wants to help the general public better understand foster parenting. With more education, he hopes others can help bridge the gaps in the foster system.
“The biggest issue is lack of foster parents right now,” DeGarmo said. “Many people believe they can’t be a foster parent. They have misconceptions.”
People often think that they’re not fit for foster parenting, because they’re not married or they don’t have a big enough home, he said.
“None of those are true,” he said. “You can be a single foster parent. You don’t have to have a big house. You don’t have to have a large income.”
Others, though, worry about the pain that might come with fostering children.
“When a child leaves a foster parent home, it’s hard for foster parents, because they’ve given them all of their heart. They’ve given them all of their love,” DeGarmo said. “So, when the child leaves, many times, it’s like losing their own child.”
That’s how it’s supposed to be though, he said.
“These children need you to have your heart break for them,” he said.
The key to recruiting and retaining more foster parents, DeGarmo said, is to provide them with proper support. He trains foster agencies across the country to help them with retention, because many quit after a year or two. He also thinks community groups and faith-based organizations could offer assistance to foster parents and children in their neighborhoods.
“Not everybody can be a foster parent,” he said. “But everybody can help in some way.”
Otherwise, children will slip through the cracks.
And DeGarmo knows all too well what happens when children don’t get the care that they need. Two of his adopted daughters are third generation foster children, meaning both their parents and grandparents went through the system.
“The cycle repeats itself for so many kids,” he said. “So, that’s why I’m trying to help these kids now, so that it doesn’t happen to the next generation.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.