Georgia is making a statewide push for more foster families after a drop apparently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) announced a statewide marketing campaign to recruit more foster parents in August of this year. On Jan. 1, 2019, there were 6,402 licensed foster homes in the state, including both Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) homes and Children Placing Agencies (CPA) homes. On Jan. 1, 2022, there were 5,771, according to data provided by DHS.
DHS Commissioner Candice Broce said that while the COVID-19 pandemic does not paint a full picture of why families are leaving the foster care system, it has aggravated the issue.
“Based on what we know from talking to foster families that have closed their homes and the patterns that we’ve analyzed emerging from COVID, it does seem that a big reason for foster families leaving has to do with the health effects of COVID,” Broce said.
Broce said that in addition to dealing with the effects of the pandemic, the state is in the process of finalizing a third-party survey to try and shed light on how they can improve the foster system, better catering to children and families. She said the top issue the department hears about is communication.
According to Broce, DHS is working with other state agencies to make the record keeping and sharing process more streamlined, ensuring that families have access to a child’s records right from the beginning so they’re immediately aware of the child’s needs. She also said the department is focused on bettering communication throughout the process.
“It’s something that we’re digging into, hoping to address with some technology and automate some information sharing so it’s not as much of a burden on case workers who are on the front line trying to do their jobs,” Broce said.
While the number of foster families has declined in recent years, the number of children in foster care has also declined. Broce said that right now, there are roughly 11,000 children in the system.
“I think one of the best ways that we’ve been able to safely decrease the number of children in foster care is really putting an emphasis on exploring family placements,” Broce said. “Any time that we can keep a child with their families, if not with their mother and father then with their grandparents or their aunts and uncles, is almost always going to be a better arrangement for the child.”
Broce said that DHS is looking for ways to help expedite the process for becoming a foster parent, which can take on average eight months. The requirements for becoming a foster parent or family can be found online.
“Right now, it probably takes longer than it should,” she said. “That’s another thing we’re looking at as part of this statewide campaign – what are ways that we can streamline the process without compromising the quality of the training, and the due diligence that we do looking into people who are interested?”
According to Crystal Williams, who grew up in Georgia’s foster care system, the decision to become a foster parent or family is not something that should be taken lightly.
“I think it is a serious thing to intervene in someone’s life and to open your life up to an individual and a young person,” Williams said. “If someone is willing to open their home to a young person, it definitely is life changing. It’s humbling, it’s life changing, and I think that it’s worth the journey, if in fact that is something you’re willing to commit to fully.”
Williams, who is now 37 and works for Casey Family Programs, a national organization committed to ending the need for foster care, came into care at the age of 10. She and her older sister, 13, were placed into the same foster home. That foster family eventually also came to care for her younger sister, who was initially placed separately.
Williams aged out of foster care before she was adopted, but her foster family ended up officially adopting her when she was 25. Even so, she said she thinks an important thing for foster families to remember is that in most cases, the placement is temporary.
“I think sometimes people enter into it wanting adoption, which is not a bad thing,” Williams said. “But foster care is temporary in most cases, and every young person comes from a family.”
Williams said one of the things she was most grateful for in relation to her foster family was their support when she wanted to reconnect with her biological family. Her biological parents have since passed away, but before they did she was able to develop a healthy relationship with both of them.
“I do attribute a lot of that to my foster parents having the right perspective about what it is they were doing,” she said. “That’s an important aspect that I think people sometimes forget, because it’s not about saving children as much as it’s about being in a position to intervene and have a ripple effect in a young person’s life.”