The Foster Care System, Built to Protect Vulnerable Children, has Routinely Ignored Cases of Child Abuse and Trafficking: Part 2 

By Sydney Johnson 

Sensitive Content Warning: This post discusses child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking. 

On October 25, 2023, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law held the first hearing in a series investigating the Human Rights of Foster Children. Led by Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA.), the hearings gave a platform to individual victims of Georgia’s Division of Family & Child Services (DFCS), victims’ families, child welfare experts, and employees of DFCS. In the first hearing, two victims and two experts shared their experiences with the system that is supposed to protect children from harm, yet repeatedly failed to prevent physical abuse, sexual abuse, and child trafficking. The witnesses for the October 25 hearing were represented by Government Accountability Project. 

This installment of the blog series focuses on the experts and advocates testimonies. Read part one here to learn about the testimony of the victims. 

Melissa Carter, a clinical Law Professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta, Georgia, has been a child welfare professional for more than 10 years. She opened her testimony with an overview of statistics related to Georgia’s foster care system. Georgia, she testified, has approximately 10,700 children and youth in the system, making the state the 12th largest foster care system in the country. The average stay for children in the system is 19 months, longer than the national average and the 7th longest stay in the country. 

Professor Carter went on to critique the system’s failure to capture its own shortcomings and its general lack of accountability. She stated that DCFS uses standardized information that does not take into account qualitative data such as child safety and child victimization. In her years of experience working with system-involved youth, she describes how her faith in the foster care system has been eroded and has been replaced with institutional distrust. These critiques were not aimed at the frontline workers of the system, including case managers, but at the myriad of imposed mandates for reporting and general practices, lack of operational capacity, failing policy infrastructure, and lack of practical oversight. 

Beneath the statistics, however, are real people: vulnerable children, families in need, and a shocking amount of child abuse and maltreatment. Of more than 120,000 reports of child neglect and abuse reported each year to Georgia’s welfare system, only around 34,000 will be investigated. A July 2016 push to resolve abuse cases more quickly only exacerbated the problem. In response, Professor Carter stated, “Decisions about child safety are made under pressure of limited time, resources, and information, and the weight of uncertainty. The stakes are high. Decision-making errors in either direction can result in harm to a child.” 

Additionally, Professor Carter testified that policymakers have failed to prioritize the needs of families, and that the state’s fragmented social safety net impedes the child welfare system’s potential for progress. Strengthening families requires addressing risk and vulnerability before a crisis can occur; that is, the state could choose to provide more robust public assistance, childcare, health care, and education rather than wait until families on the edge find themselves overwhelmed. In Georgia, unfortunately, DFCS has made resource investments and policy choices that are institutionally self-interested and leave families vulnerable to the system. 

The second expert witness was Emma Heatherington, J.D., Director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law. Prior to her current position, she served as a Senior Child Advocate Attorney for DeKalb Country, Georgia.  

In her testimony, Heatherington described her work with some of the most vulnerable children in the foster care system: her clients have all been abused and/or neglected by care givers;  sexually abused prior to adolescence; and experienced abuse and/or neglect while in the legal and physical custody of Georgia DFCS.  

The abuse Heatherington focused on in her testimony was child sexual abuse and human trafficking.  

Instead of providing gynecological and psychiatric care that these teenaged victims require, DCFS either ignores their needs or, worse, labels them as “delinquent” or “criminal.”  

“When survivors are not properly identified, their abusers are shielded from accountability, and the traumatic underlying cause of behavior is not addressed. The choice to punish instead of support sets in motion a cycle of abuse, family separation, and even incarceration or detention that has harmful consequences for some of our most vulnerable children,” Heatherington stated. 

Appallingly, Heatherington has seen her clients—victims of child sex trafficking—described by words like “promiscuous, manipulative, prostitute,” and more. One 13-year-old client was denied the ability to attend school in person and build ties with kids her own age because the group home personnel accused her of “grooming” other children.  In another instance, the ostensible “caregivers” blamed a 12-year-old’s “promiscuity” for the sexual abuse she had suffered. 

These disturbing statements shocked the senators and those watching the hearing in the room. Heatherington called for quality legal representation for children, trauma-responsive training, implementation, and care, and youth empowerment and choice. She reminded the senators these statements and issues about sexually abused and trafficked children in the foster care system is not just a problem in Georgia, but across the United States. 

In the first hearing, we heard testimonies from two victims of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of Georgia’s Division of Family and Child Services. We also heard from two experts who work to protect children in the foster care system. The senators heard shocking accounts of children kept with their traffickers and abusers while the agency responsible for the welfare of those children blamed them for the abusive actions of adults.  The experts demanded that policies be changed to protect the most vulnerable individuals in the country–children in foster care–from a lack of bureaucratic oversight and system overwhelm that leave them behind and forgotten. 

This is an ongoing investigation through the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law.