The Georgia Cold Case Project
Barriers to Achieving Permanency
Many uncontrollable factors impact the ability of the courts and DFCS to achieve outcomes of permanency for cold cases. These include family members who refuse to be involved in a child’s life, the child’s emotional and mental stability, the child’s behavior, and unforeseen events such as the death of a caretaker. The typical cold case was very complex and challenging. The child welfare system is faced with the very difficult job of harmonizing a child’s safety, his familial connections, his physical and emotional needs, and his educational needs. The goal of permanency must be achieved while balancing the best interests of the child.
The Fellows summarized the court, DFCS, and family factors affecting progress toward permanency. For one of three children, the courts presented barriers to permanency such as time delays, missing or inaccurate petitions and motions, lack of attorney action, and lack of judicial oversight (such as expired custody orders). Fellows described DFCS barriers to permanency in 49% of the cases, such as failing to pursue relatives, lack of timely intervention, failure to consider a broader range of placements, case manager turnover, and lack of resources. Family and caregivers were most likely to present permanency problems. For 53% of children this encompassed a lack of willingness to take custody or adopt, being ill-equipped to handle special issues and needs, lack of stability, and noncompliance with DFCS case plans.
In addition to the file review forms, Fellows wrote two-page narrative summaries of each file reviewed after conducting a short face-to-face interview with the case manager. Those narratives note practices believed to be unsatisfactory. In one-third of cases, Fellows describe problems with the completion of diligent searches or a lack of efforts in general to locate family members. Files often lacked diligent search information, or the information located was old and had not been updated in recent years. Also of concern was the lack of documentation of attempts made to locate absent fathers or paternal families to serve as potential resources. Further, there were several cases where relatives had expressed an interest in being a placement for a child, but no follow-up had been completed.
Case manager turnover is clearly a challenge to permanency for cold cases, in that they average five case managers each and one in three children had six or more case managers. Turnover can reduce the likelihood of case file knowledge. One case manager described steps she had taken to foster contact between a teen and her mother, despite the file containing orders expressly preventing any contact between the child and mother. Another case manager advised that she was not aware that the child under review had been sexually abused, despite psychological evaluations in the file documenting sexual abuse.
Other noted unsatisfactory practices included: disorganized files, a failure to maintain familial connections for children, generic WTLPs that did not address the specific needs of children, the unnecessary separation of siblings, failure to terminate parental rights so that children could be adopted, and an acceptance of a foster placement with a relative as “good enough.” It is important to note that some of the issues noted by the Fellows were current case practices, but many of the issues were rooted in management of the case many years prior.