Sunday, February 9, 2014

Unforeseen Consequences?

A component of Georgia’s recently retooled juvenile code has some in the state  concerned. Will HB 242 provisions place additional stress on Georgia’s foster care system?

By: James Swift

With several strokes of a pen, Governor Nathan Deal completely transformed the juvenile justice landscape in Georgia when he signed House Bill 242 into law last year. The package included a total rewrite of the state’s juvenile code, which, among other things, barred the detention of youths for status offenses and provided more funding for community-based incarceration alternatives.

However, the impact of HB 242 was not limited to the state’s juvenile justice system. Also impacted by the legislation was Georgia’s child welfare system, as the package did away with an “unruly” child designation and instituted the new “Children in Needs of Services” (CHINS) definition.

According to some child welfare and juvenile justice system officials, however, the new CHINS designation will result in more Division of Families and Children Services (DFCS) cases -- and potentially, more out-of-home placements. The end result, they say, could create severe hardships, not only for state agencies and foster care providers, but the state’s CHINS as well.

A Disaster Waiting to Happen?

“[Legislators] said we’ll rely on IV-E funding, which primarily comes from the federal government, and that will end up saving the state money,” said Benjamin Bell, a DFCS protective placement specialist for foster care youth in Floyd County. “The only problem is if these children in needs of services end up coming into foster care, they’re probably all going to be maximum watchful oversight (MWO), and we only have 117 facilities that are built for that.”

Making matters worse, Bell said, is that many of these MWO-certified facilities are already at or approaching full capacity. “Once these CHINS children start coming into foster care, I don’t see how the foster care system is going to absorb them, given the placements where they would be going are already full at this point.”

Regarding the impact of the CHINS designations, Bell observes a dichotomy among those in Georgia’s child welfare system. Higher-ups, he said, are vaguely optimistic that things will “work out,” while many intake officers he’s spoken to remain unsure and even pessimistic about the state’s response to a possible influx of CHINS cases.

“It puts a real strain on the foster care system because finding placement for a child is not easy -- you have to interview for placement, it’s their choice [and] if they’re already full, then they can easily say ‘no, we’re not taking that child,’” Bell said. “House Bill 242 relies on these community-based resources that are not up to the challenge…the implementation now is definitely tenuous and a lot of children, in my opinion, are going to suffer because of it.”

From One System to Another

At juvenile justice implementation committee meetings, Gordon County Juvenile Court Judge Lane Bearden said he has not heard of any upswings in “unruly or ungovernable” intakes into the state’s child welfare system. As of late January, nor have any CHINS children been taken into custody or placed out of home within his own county. However, without enough local resources or placement alternatives, Bearden fears that officers or court systems could become frustrated.

“The concern, and I think it was not really voiced initially,” he said, “we were afraid the children might wind up in DFCS custody.”

Although foster care placement is not currently a major concern regarding Georgia’s CHINS, Bearden believes there is a strong likelihood the new statute may lead to more “deprived youths” in out-of-home placements.

“The best solution, of course, is to not have those children being placed in care as a guise for dealing with unruly youth,” he said. “The foster care system isn’t built for that [and] I think the whole purpose of the legislation has been those children should be dealt with in the community.”

Bearden said certain portions of the new statute, particularly regarding the administration of CHINS committees, are vague. Across Georgia, counties are interpreting the protocols differently; while Bearden said that virtually all have some level of DFCS involvement, some committees have direct DJJ leadership. His concern is “net widening,” with some youth, whom prior to the code change would not have come into contact with DJJ, now possibly entering the juvenile justice system.

“Just like with any multidisciplinary team, if there is some service that can be provided by [DJJ],” he said, “what we don’t want to start saying is “well, we’ll provide the services, and therefore, we lump these children in with those who are also going to be subject to discipline, and then they get caught up in the system.’”

Bearden does not want to see deprived youth routed through the delinquency system, but he believes placing ungovernable and unruly children in the deprivation system is just as problematic. “The worst case scenario for me is if a child runs away [and] they’re returned home,” Bearden said. “And the officer or the court system gets frustrated and says, ‘well, we don’t know why this child is running away, but the parents can’t provide for them so we’re going to put them in foster care.’”

The State Responds

Rachel Davidson, a juvenile court liaison for Georgia’s DFCS, said the agency has been working collaboratively on both the state and local level to coordinate appropriate CHINS cases responses. While she said that not all CHINS children will be placed out-of-home, the same policies and procedures outlined for other children will be strictly followed for those who may end up in the state’s foster care system.

“DFCS does expect an increase in the number of children in foster care statewide as a result of the CHINS designation,” she said,  “but it is too early to determine how much of an increase to expect.”

The agency, Davidson said, will work closely with community partners and other agencies to strive for the “best interests” of each youth who may enter the system as CHINS.

“It is possible that a youth may come to the attention of the court and DFCS through a CHINS complaint, but the youth may also be experiencing dependency issues,” she said. “In these situations, the youth may be treated as a dependent child in addition to a CHINS youth.”

DFCS, she said, has provided training to foster care service providers throughout the state regarding legal changes stemming from the new CHINS designation.

“DFCS is expecting an increase in the number of youth that will require an out-of-home-placement,” she said. “However, it is possible that placement providers may adjust their services to accommodate this potential increase.”

The agency, she said, has been working on “developing appropriate placements” to meet the needs of youths in jurisdictions that may be lacking adequate foster care services and resources.

“Communities have been working together to identify resources that will be helpful when responding to CHINS youth,“ she stated, “whether that youth is placed in foster care or remains in his or her home.”

A More Positive Outlook

Cindy Simpson, chief operations officer of the Atlanta-based CHRIS Kids, said her organization has yet to see any drastic changes since the CHINS designation was instituted in the state code, however.

As an MWO provider, she said CHRIS Kids has not required any major policy or facility adjustments since HB 242 took effect. “We continue to have staff ratio of one-to-three in eight group homes serving six youths per home,” Simpson said. “I believe the change for CHRIS Kids will be focused on increasing our community High Fidelity Wrap Around services that focus on keeping youth in their homes with their family.”

Base-level facilities in Georgia, however, would require considerable upgrades in order to meet licensure for MWO youths. Among other requirements, Simpson said a facility would most certainly have to hire more staffers and implement additional training protocols to fulfill state provisions.

Furthermore, in counties where community resources are lacking, she believes it is very likely that some youths may be transferred for out-of-home placements. “If the community does not have the appropriated or needed community services or placements locally,” she said, “then the youth will be transferred out of county.”

Regarding mandatory DFCS involvement in CHINS cases, Simpson said that while out-of-home placement may be a possibility, it is much likelier that CHINS youth will receive other services as a first option.

“Not all CHINS children will need or require an out of home placement,” she said. “The first consideration of services would be to provide in-home and community [services.]”

Furthermore, Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Bradley Boyd said that it is too early to assess the impact of the CHINS designation on Georgia’s child welfare system.

“The code anticipates that prior to a child being placed in DFCS custody an array of services should be explored and attempted,” he said. “It is not likely that cases that were just filed this month will have reached the point of commitment to DFCS, much less for any period of time that would make any assessment of the impact on the agency anything other than highly speculative.”

A Future in Jeopardy?

While the state may save money in the short term on YDC costs, Bell doesn’t see federal funding increasing for the state’s foster care providers.

“It’s a bureaucratic mess to even become one of these facilities,” Bell said. “But really, you need to have a lot of red tape cut and you have to have these facilities two years ago.”

In hindsight, Bell said legislators would have better served Georgia’s youth by funding community-based programs prior to the juvenile code rewrite. He also believes juvenile court judges should have more leniency regarding the placement of children. “The more leniency the judge has, the ability he or she had to make a decision, I think is always better for the kids,” he said. “You should just give the judge the type of leeway to say, ‘OK, I’m going to hold this kid at YDC until you guys can find appropriate placement.’”

Bell believes that smaller counties, and the children who live in them, are getting the worst of the legislative changes. “The incentives are not really there in these smaller counties for people to want to create these agencies, or even work for DFCS,” he said. “You’re going to have better community-based resources in bigger counties, and the smaller ones are going to suffer.”

The end dividends of Georgia’s potential inability to meet the placement needs of CHINS youths could be disastrous, Bell concluded.

“The long term economic impact is, if you traumatize these children enough, then they’re never going to be successful and they’ll rely on the system their whole lives,” he said. “Just being in foster care is traumatic enough, but imagine you’re saying to a kid ‘we have nowhere to place you, son.’”

Similarly, Bearden has heard several complaints from county commissioners throughout the state, whom refer to the statute-guaranteed CHINS funding as an “unfunded mandate.” With resources absent, he said many counties have had to construct short-term solutions, including putting together their own multidisciplinary teams.

He also believes that, since many small counties in Georgia have a dearth of Master’s level service providers, out-of-county-placement may be a real possibility. “We don’t want any children removed from their home county, just because other counties have more resources available,” he said. “We’d like to think that couldn’t happen, but with the statute, I think we have to be vigilant that it doesn’t happen.”

Placing CHINS in foster services, he said, is hardly any different than placing status offenders in detention centers. “It’s hard to believe that a status offender is so dangerous that they had to be locked up,” Bearden said. “Well, it’s also hard to believe that these CHINS children are such a danger to themselves or others, or so deprived, that they have to be placed in foster care, because there is no alternative."

Uncommon Journalism, 2014.

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