The Georgia Cold Case Project Executive Summary
The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 had three goals: prevent unnecessary foster care placements; reunify children with parents whenever possible; and bring about the expeditious adoption of children unable to return home. The aim was to pro- duce positive outcomes for both children and families. Compliance with federal requirements is assessed by the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) conduct- ed by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Georgia’s first CFSR in 2001 indicated the state was not performing in conformity with federal requirements, thus it was re- quired to develop a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) to address each area of concern and given two years to implement the plan. By 2006 the Children’s Bureau determined that Georgia failed to complete all PIP re- quirements successfully and assessed a $4.3 million penalty, with additional penalties each year until com- pliance. Despite areas of positive performance, Geor- gia failed its second CFSR which indicated a difficulty with establishing permanency in a timely manner for children with extended stays in foster care (referred to herein as “cold cases”).
In response, the Supreme Court of Georgia Commit- tee on Justice for Children dedicated Court Improve- ment Project funds to develop a method for improv- ing permanency outcomes for long term foster care “cold cases.” This project is timely as Georgia strives to improve performance in this area and anticipates suc- cessful completion of the PIP by August 2010. Working in full partnership and support with the Georgia Di- vision of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, the Committee implemented the Georgia Cold Case Project in 2009. The Georgia Cold Case Project (June 2010) describes the process of defining and identifying “cold” cases, the development of a program protocol, the analyses of 214 cold cases, and feedback from anonymous sur- veys of case managers and attorneys. Fifteen policy recommendations are presented to help Georgia bet- ter respond to the permanency needs of children in foster care.
File reviews of the cold cases by specially trained child welfare attorneys (Supreme Court Fellows) found both negative and positive permanency practices, and bar- riers to permanency were found on all sides. Family and caregivers were most likely to present permanen- cy 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. Fellows described DFCS barriers to permanency in half 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. For one in three children, the courts pre- sented barriers to permanency such as time delays, missing or inaccurate petitions and motions, lack of attorney action, and lack of judicial oversight.
Despite the obstacles, many positive DFCS case man- agement practices were documented by Fellows. The most common (13% of cases) were extensive efforts made by individual case managers to maintain familial contact for a child. In 10% of the cases, Fellows docu- mented great efforts by DFCS to provide assistance to families (pre-removal, upon reunification/adoption, and to non-parental caretakers). Assistance included mental health services, parenting aides, transporta- tion, and anger management classes. In 10% of cases case managers were exceptionally resourceful, cre- ative, and took initiative to work difficult cases. Exam- ples included finding back-up placements, conducting very detailed Accurint searches to locate all possible family members, and relying on adoption counselors to reduce resistance to adoption among teens. In ad- dition, the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) network was clearly working to promote permanency for cold cases. Fellows found many examples of “good practice” to be applauded. Fellows described a clear and positive change in culture among today’s case managers not evident in the documentation of older practice.
The typical cold case child was 14 years old and had been in care for six years (ranging from less than one year to 16 years). The vast majority (85%) had some type of identified disability. Nearly two thirds of the children (64%) lived in an institution or group home; one third lived in a family setting (foster family, foster relative, or pre-adoptive home). The group averaged nine placements per child; 25% of the children had a dozen or more placements.
For 90% of the children there was more than one rea- son for DFCS involvement in their lives. Parental sub- stance abuse was the most frequently observed pri- mary reason, followed by child neglect. One third of the children (36%) had previously been removed from their home. One in three children came from a single female-headed home. While one in three was part of a sibling group that could be placed together, only 25 kids in our sample were in a placement with a sibling.